MCDONOUGH, Ga. – As Tussahaw Elementary opened this week for a new school year, teary-eyed mothers led in kindergartners dwarfed by backpacks and buses dropped off fifth graders looking forward to ruling their school. The biggest clue to the lingering COVID-19 crisis was the masks worn by students and teachers — but not all of them.
Georgia, like most states, is leaving it up to local schools to decide whether to require face coverings. And 43,000-student Henry County, like many districts worn out by months of conflict over masks, has decided not to insist on them.
Instead, they are “highly recommended.”
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Many parents Wednesday in this suburb south of Atlanta had mixed feelings about the policy. Some kept their children home in disagreement with it. Others sent their youngsters to class with face coverings.
Shatavia Dorsey, the mother of a kindergartner and a fifth grader, said her children are going to wear their masks at school regardless of the rules.
“They’re not vaccinated because they’re too young, and I don’t know if someone else is carrying it in,” said Dorsey, who is doubtful about the school system’s ability to maintain in-person instruction amid rising infections.
With the delta variant spreading rapidly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have advised in recent weeks that everyone in schools wear masks in communities with substantial or high transmission.
Educators have had to contend with strong resistance to masks from some parents and political leaders. Some consider mask rules an intrusion on parents’ authority to make decisions about their children’s health.
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California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington state intend to require masks for all students and teachers regardless of vaccination status. At the other end of the spectrum, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah have banned mask requirements in public schools.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said Thursday the decision of whether to wear masks in school should be made by parents, adding: “What are the harmful effects of putting a kindergartener in a mask for seven hours? Have they talked about the emotional, the academic, the physiological? Why isn’t CDC studying that?”
Outbreaks that have hit schools at the very start of the year have added to calls for more mask requirements.
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In Marion, Arkansas, over 800 students and staff members have been quarantined because of exposure since classes began last week in the 4,000-student district.
Marion Superintendent Glen Fenter urged lawmakers to overturn the state law banning masks, warning that a “full-blown crisis” could lie ahead. And Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed regret over signing the ban in the first place and asked that it be lifted. But the GOP-controlled Legislature left it in place Friday.
From the beginning of the pandemic to the peak of infections in January, CDC data showed children 15 and under had the lowest infection rates. Now, though, school-age children have infection rates higher than adults 50 and older.