More than 200 parents and community members — and a candidate for governor — gathered outside Gwinnett county Public Schools’ J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center Friday night to protest the district’s decision this week to reinstate a mask mandate for the system’s students and employees.

The district announced plans Tuesday to reinstate the face mask mandate after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance earlier in the day that said people should wear face masks, even if they are fully vaccinated, because of the Delta variant of COVID-19.

Gwinnett County Public Schools former Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, whose last day was Friday, announced masks will be required in GCPS facilities and on school buses. The requirement applies to all students, staff and visitors regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The facts and recommendations are clear… masks do make a difference and we must do all we can to keep students in school, in person,” Wilbanks said.

The decision to reinstate the mask mandate in Gwinnett schools reignited a debate that had seemingly ended with the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year and led to a stand off at the school board meeting in May when several parents refused to comply with the previous mandate.

One of the leaders of a group of Gwinnett parents who have been pushing back against mask mandates, critical race theory and other issues told parents gathered for an anti-mask rally at the ISC on Friday that district leaders have been served with a writ of mandamus explaining that parents will file a lawsuit against the district if the new mandate is not rescinded.

The parents are getting some support from officials in the political arena, including state Sen. Clint Dixon and Republican gubernatorial candidate Vernon Jones, who is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp for the GOP’s nomination in 2022.

Jones, at one point, cited John Lewis’ “Good Trouble” slogan and said he was willing to get arrested.

“I don’t want these babies to be in a mask all day long,” Jones told the crowd. “It’s uncomfortable for them. It’s basically child abuse.”

Gwinnett parents are being given until Aug. 2 to decide if they want to change their reference for how their child will be taught this semester, meaning whether they want their children taught in-person or digitally.

The district is telling families to contact their local school if they want to make a change in how they prefer to have their children taught.

“We realize this does not allow families a lot of time to make this decision, but we must have this information by this date to ensure schools are staffed appropriately to serve students and student schedules are finalized prior to the start of school,” Wilbanks said.

The move to require masks in school comes as case numbers continue a sharp rise in Gwinnett County. The two-week new COVID-19 case rate in Gwinnett has more than quadrupled in less than a month, with steady increases each week.

On Friday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported that there had been 1,342 new COVID-19 cases in Gwinnett alone in the last two weeks. That was up from Tuesday — the day the mask mandate was announced — when the state reported 1,055 new cases in Gwinnett County in the preceding two weeks.

By comparison, Tuesday’s number itself is up from the two-week total of 642 new cases as of one week earlier, on July 20, 409 new cases for the two-week period ending July 13 and 304 new cases for the two-week period ending July 6.

Gwinnett leads Georgia in total cases since the pandemic arrived in the state in March 2020, with state health officials reporting a total of 89,765 cases, 5,397 hospitalizations, 1,136 confirmed deaths and 80 probable deaths in the county.

District officials said their primary concerns was the health and safety of students and staff. Other reasons why they chose to reinstate the mask mandate was that was they felt it was important for students to be in school but elementary and younger middle school age students are ineligible to get vaccinated at this time while several students and staff members who are eligible to be vaccinated have chosen to not do so.

The district also cited CDC and other health partners who have pointed to mask wearing, even by people who are vaccinated, as a key mitigation tool. There has also been a federal executive order that requires students wear face masks on school buses, GCPS officials said.

GCPS officials did say, however, that students who are in close contact with a classmate who tests positive for COVID-19 does not have to go into quarantine if both students have been wearing face masks.

If either of them have not been wearing a mask, however, and quarantine is necessary, the students have to remain in quarantine for up to two weeks.

“While disappointed that the school year will start with masks, GCPS is very happy that its students will be starting the school year in person,” district officials said in their announcement.

“Please know that district leaders will continue to monitor for new guidance from the CDC, health partners, and the state, using it to make updates throughout the 2021–22 school year.”

New GCPS Superintendent Calvin Watts said he is willing to hear the concerns raised by parents who do not want the mask mandate to be in place. Watts takes over the district’s leader on Monday.

“What I am hearing is that they are not appreciative of having their students, their children, to wear masks,” Watts said. “What we’re saying is that ... we need to rely on the expertise of those who are in the (epidemiology) field at CDC, that’s providing us the guidance that we’re following.

“At which time the guidance needs to change based on our metrics, our numbers, we will watch the signs, we will watch the information and the data.”

District officials said there will be mask breaks at the schools and the school leaders will be reaching out to their staffs about scheduling those breaks.

Kids will be allowed to take their masks off when they are outside, during lunch and during mask breaks and students who participate in band and physical education activities will be given times of the day when they don’t have to wear masks.

The district also said it will make accommodations for students and GCPS employees who cannot wear masks because of documented medical reasons such as sensory issues, asthma or other pulmonary conditions.

“A layered approach is needed to keep our students safe and in school,” Wilbanks said. “Masks are one of the tools proven to be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. It is time for us to mask up and take advantage of vaccination opportunities to help our community get past the pandemic.”

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

(12) comments

raah

How many of the new covid cases are connected to the thousands of unvaccinated illegal aliens coming across the border due to Biden's policies?

MarvinGardens

Health departments and nonprofits are reaching out to provide free vaccines to immigrants regardless of legal status. Which I'm sure you support. Right?

MarvinGardens

I'm somewhat ambivalent, because I'm vaccinated (yawn). Ironically, this is protecting the unvaccinated parents the most, who are likely the same ones protesting against masks. If the kid gets covid, they'll probably be fine, but their unvaccinated parents, not so much. My kids will follow the policy to protect those who refused to do the right thing. To the protesters, I will say: If you are that bothered by your kids wearing masks, switch to digital learning and keep them at home.

MarvinGardens

I would like to remind everyone that we are doing this today because many Georgians decided to forego doing the right thing, and chose not to get vaccinated. Now it's going to be "mask-up" again, entirely because of that collective choice.

Make no mistake: If you were eligible for a vaccine and did not get it, this situation is partly your fault. But it is not too late to do the right thing and get the vaccine, to protect yourself and your community.

For those who still refuse to do the right thing: Delta is coming for you. If you get a bad case, you'll beg for the vaccine in between gasps for breath, but the doctors will tell you it's too late.

hpytravlr

This is not true. We are doing this bc Biden is trying to scare us. Totalitarians governments always use fear to control people.

MarvinGardens

Trump told us the vaccine was the answer. Vaccine development was funded by Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed. Trump got the vaccine and urged others to do so. Are both Trump and Biden totalitarians because they encourage vaccines?

Yes, totalitarians use fear to control people. But what if there is something that we really should be afraid of? What then? Should government do nothing to help people survive a true crisis?

Are you saying that Covid is not something to fear, or that it has not killed over a half-million Americans?

Gypsy120

hapytravlr, so the fact that your ex Republican president is the one who says you need to take this does that make him totalitarian also. The only reason you were complaining it's because it's 45 is not in to help you try to stir things up

hpytravlr

Remember when Gwinnett had great schools? It seems so far away now.

Fun times

i heard a lot of perspectives and opinions on the issues relating to masking children but scientific facts? That's a bridge too far.

The directive should have left masking optional - so those who believe they work in their personal situation could feel comfortable.

MarvinGardens

Masks slow the spread. That's what the science says.

Stranger

So does staying at home. If you're worried, stay home.

MarvinGardens

Hey Fun Times, quite frankly I'm fine to go out without a mask and have been doing so, because I'm vaccinated. Now myself and kids will resume wearing masks to protect those in the community who refuse the vaccine, pursuant to CDC guidance and now GCPS policy. Because we're nice like that.

I admit that I'm not always feeling that nice. Sometimes I think we (vaccinated) should live our normal lives without masks, and let the unvaccinated get the herd immunity through infection they seem to want. I'll feel more strongly this way once my kids can be vaccinated. Once we can protect our kids, you'll start seeing more mask resistance and protests from the vaccinated. We will have done our part, and I will not feel any further obligation to help people who won't do the right thing.

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