In Georgia, most students populate desks rather than Zoom screens. In-person instruction is considered to be superior in terms of learning, and the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization say it can be done safely — with mask mandates and clear mitigation strategies.
Despite this guidance, masks are optional in approximately two-thirds of Georgia schools.
Clarke County School District required masks in its reopening. Conversely, Oconee County, which has been in-person since August, “strongly encourages” masks with no mandate. As of early March, 306 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Oconee’s schools, 224 of which are students and 82 are staff.
Andie Richardson, a sophomore at Oconee County High School, estimates that 50% of students choose to wear masks in her school.
“COVID, it’s definitely a worry for everybody, but especially going to school and trying to get an education there — it’s stressful every day,” Richardson said, “It’s been really scary this year, just trying to overcompensate for everything that’s wrong about the protocols.”
Still, Richardson says that staff hold boxes of masks and attempt to give them to students in the mornings. Masks are mandated on the buses. Teachers regulate bathroom capacity. Students are spread out during lunch. Contact tracing — which Richardson has been quarantined for — is conducted.
“Oconee County Schools opened on August 5 with both in-person and distance/digital options and we have remained open all year. With a number of safety measures in place, we have been able to offer all families a safe in-person option for their children, and we look forward to finishing out what has been a very unique — but very successful — school year,” Oconee Schools Communications Director Anisa Sullivan Jimenez wrote in an email.
According to a ProPublica examination of Georgia schools that cites the Georgia Department of Public Health, students in schools with mask mandates usually make up less of their community’s COVID-19 cases than those in schools without mask mandates.
“Overall, in Georgia counties where school-age children represented less than 6% of all coronavirus cases, roughly 80% of school districts required masks. In counties where children made up 10% or more of cases, 80% of districts did not mandate masks,” ProPublica staffers Annie Waldman and Heather Vogell wrote.
Student opinion and political influence
After seven months of virtual instruction, Clarke County high schools returned to in-person instruction last month. Along with the mask mandate, in-person students transitioned into physical school with a hybrid format where desks are spaced, dismissal is in cohorts and no more than two students are allowed at a lunch table.
Cedar senior Anthony Heiges says that 100% of students in his classes wear masks, and he estimates 80% of students in the hallways wear theirs correctly with the other 20% wearing masks below the nose or mouth.
“I got my first vaccination shot on the fifth, so I feel relatively safe in the building. But, if I was not in the process of getting vaccinated, I absolutely would not feel safe being back in school. The time when people are not wearing the masks correctly, the worst, is also when everyone’s jam-packed together, like the transition out of lunch,” Heiges said. “If I was not vaccinated, that would be a pretty concerning place to be.”
Heiges says that he would not have come back to in-person school if Clarke County didn’t have a mask mandate.
“That’s how you get super spreader events. That’s how you get ground zero. That’s how you turn Athens-Clarke County from high risk to overwhelming risk,” Heiges said.
Jackson County Comprehensive High School junior Anna Gebo says Jackson County has a mask mandate, but she estimates that about 75% of students wear one.
Gebo values her education, but she questions whether the benefits of in-person instruction outweigh the risk of transmission.
“If everyone could stick to a plan and be safe and wear masks and social distance, it would be worth it to go in person, but since they can’t I don’t know if it’s worth it. I mean, lives are being put at risk and as important as education is, I just don’t like what’s being prioritized,” Gebo said.
In response to rising case numbers, Gebo attended school virtually in December.
Jackson County has put in place numerous safety measures. Along with the mask mandate, the system temporarily shifted to virtual instruction to mitigate spread, posted signage about social distancing and has committed to deep cleaning, improving ventilation, and keeping hand sanitizer and soap readily available.
Jackson County Comprehensive High School and East Jackson Comprehensive High School officials have not responded to requests for comment.
Abby Pennington, a sophomore at East Jackson Comprehensive High School, has not felt at risk at school this year. She says almost everyone follows the mask mandate.
“There’s always concern when you see someone not wearing a mask because they are a little careless, but I’ve never felt at risk that I’ll get it and be hospitalized. I think they’ve been pretty safe,” Pennington said. “They’ll always tell people in the hallways who don’t have them (masks) on to put them on immediately. They always have extra masks for people that need them.”
Kate Fitzpatrick is currently a junior and virtual student in Jackson County.
She recalls walking into a classroom and seeing kids packed together. Worried by their lack of social distancing, she asked a friend in the group to put a mask on. The friend complied, but Fitzpatrick is still concerned by the actions of others.
“There are a lot of kids that don’t care enough to put their mask on,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think half the kids that do it are influenced by their parents and think that if they wear a mask they’re being a sheep. I’m not sure what the logic behind it is, but they are influenced by political opinions they might see in their household.”
Richardson also believes politics promote aversion towards masks in Oconee.
“I’ve talked to people in my class that don’t wear masks,” Richardson said. “They’ve read articles or listened to certain politicians that say ‘Oh, you don’t need to wear a mask. Don’t let people control you.’”
Oconee and Jackson county are both majority Republican, with 65.9% of Oconee’s vote and 78.3% of Jackson’s going towards Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential election and results closely mirroring these for Republican candidates in the 2021 Senate runoffs.
Surveys show that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to oppose masks and underestimate the risks of COVID-19. According to a September Pew Research survey, Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to mention masks as a negative effect of COVID-19. In fact, the same researchers found that masks were the single most mentioned phrase in Republicans’ response to how the pandemic has made their life difficult.
Though aware of political conviction of her peers, Richardson continues to rally for mask-wearing.
“I ask people in my classes to put on masks and some of them have done it, just in that class for me. I’ve signed petitions and we made signs about it. We’re trying,” Richardson said.
Not enforcing a mask mandate, Richardson says, does not make the district administration liable for COVID-19 cases.
“I don’t think the staff or the Board of Education is directly responsible because although they haven’t done much, there’s people in my school that go out or go to parties over the weekend and come back without a mask,” Richardson said.
Brent Andrews, Cedar Shoals English department, recalls driving through Oconee County one morning early in the school year and seeing students filing into a school building unmasked.
“I almost had a panic attack just watching that happen even though it wasn’t my school,” Andrews said. “I am glad that I teach in Clarke County, considering the other districts in our area having decided to go back face to face, in a lot of cases not even requiring masks.”
Mr. Aaron Woods teaches in the OC school system. He requested a pseudonym out of concern for retribution for expressing his opinions publicly. Woods estimates that 50%-80% of students wear masks in his school and echoes Andrews’ concern. He believes that masks are necessary for protection against COVID-19 and should be mandated by the school district.
“A lot of students are just not going to do it (wear masks) because it’s not a rule, and if there’s a rule, they probably would,” Woods said. “Over time masks have been shown, according to science, to be the most effective way to reduce spread. Not making them mandatory for political reasons is just a really weak response. That puts people’s lives in jeopardy.”
Because of the lack of a mask mandate, Woods would support Oconee going totally virtual. However, he says it’s unlikely — Oconee remained open for in-person instruction with no school-wide virtual or hybrid intervals since August, besides the totally virtual option Woods estimates 10% of students chose.
“I would celebrate going virtual personally. I (would) know that I’m not taking risk and putting people’s lives in jeopardy by going,” Woods said. “But I would miss school. I’d miss relationships and the classroom and I would lament the learning that is not going to happen because of digital school. So, it would be an entirely bittersweet thing.”
Aside from masks, Oconee has taken other measures that Woods appreciates. Oconee teachers received their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on March 8 and their second on April 2. Jackson County teachers have also received at least their first dose. Woods says the county has also given all teachers KN-95 masks, which filter up to 95% of particles in the air.
According to district data provided to Oconee County Observations, staff in the Oconee school system are testing positive for COVID-19 disproportionately more than students. Staff populate approximately 14% of schools, but as of March 19, makeup 30.1% of total reported COVID-19 cases.
Unfortunately, Woods feels he cannot express his concern to his leadership.
“I just always assumed, having worked in the system pre-COVID, that the school board appreciated us as humans. That understanding, that idea of community has really taken a hit because of COVID,” Woods said. “It’s been a gradual and continual experience of loss. Not just losses that are common in COVID in terms of people dying and traditions going away, but a loss of a sense of family. Putting your family in jeopardy, this is not how families are supposed to be.”
Protests for a mandate
While Woods feels he must protest cautiously, Oconee students and families have been openly calling for a mask mandate. Posted in January, a petition titled “Safety through Hybrid Learning and Mask Mandates for OCS of Georgia” has garnered over 3,135 signatures as of April 22. According to the petition description, “The district has failed to take these necessary precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. As such, this petition simply asks the Oconee County Board of Education to put in place the simple measures required to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
Anonymous benefactor “John Doe,” who posted the petition, calls for Oconee leadership to implement a hybrid model and a mask mandate. “The district’s disregard for public health can end with these two simple measures being put into place,” the petition reads.
Richardson says she and her friends have continually urged their administration to implement a mask mandate.
“A lot of students and a lot of clubs that I’m in, we all went to talk to the principal to say we want a mask mandate. A lot of parents emailed the school and then there was that big petition,” Richardson said. “We’ve hung up signs about the mandate. The day after all of us signed it we were promoting it at school.”
At the March 8 Oconee County school board meeting, Oconee County High School student Leila Hobbs and her mother spoke in support of a mask mandate.
“Every day when I walk in, I hope and pray that more students will be wearing masks, and every day I am disappointed,” Hobbs said in her speech. “I have witnessed my own teachers break down and cry in front of my classes, begging students to put on masks, and these students still refuse.”
Currently, as vaccinations increase, COVID-19 case numbers in Clarke, Jackson, and Oconee counties are on the decline. Cases in Jackson and Oconee schools mirror the lower community spread, and CCSD has reported 21 cases since reopening less than two months ago.