Schools are back in Barrow County, Georgia, with bulging bookbags, new shoes — and masks optional.
In a rain-spattered car pool lane, both parents and students seemed more excited and anxious about the usual first day things — different teachers, new kids and curricula — than about the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m not too nervous about the coronavirus — I know it’s been handled well and I think everything’s going to go well,” said ninth-grader Joseph Wren.
His mom Sylinda Wren added she wasn’t worried either. “I’ll send him a mask if he needs to wear it — it’s his decision.”
The Barrow Arts and Science Academy in Winder, in common with the rest of the county’s schools, is recommending but not mandating mask wearing. They have other precautions in place to guard against the spread of Covid-19, such as distancing, asking the sick to stay home, and contact tracing of people exposed to an infected teacher or student,.
A vaccination clinic was held for school staff but there wasn’t enough interest in the county to have one for eligible students, officials said.
Cases have been rising in Barrow County, reaching an average of almost 29 new cases a day on Tuesday, according to the Georgia department of public health.
The area has high community transmission on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracker, which means the CDC recommends everyone wears masks indoors.
But in hallways, classrooms and the cafeteria, high schoolers and the staff often chose to go maskless.
“In our school system we are really honoring the parents’ and the students’ personal decisions, while also really encouraging them to make a wise decision to keep themselves and others safe,” said Barrow Arts and Science Academy principal Dale Simpson.
Kennedy Momen said she was surprised by what she saw on her first day of ninth grade.
“I didn’t know that many people would not be wearing masks,” she said, adding that she still felt safe and would continue to wear her mask.
“Give kids a choice if they want to wear a mask or not,” she told CNN. “If you’ve had your vaccine, you should have a choice.”
Watching students climb off buses and move to their classes, it was striking how many Black students masked up compared to their White peers.
Ysheena Lyles, an eighth grade language arts teacher who is African American, said students were reflecting what they knew.
“African American kids are aware of what the pandemic has done to that demographic and their families,” she said. And the fact that students still wanted to attend in person rather than using virtual learning showed something else, she added.
“At the same time they are also aware of the value in education and coming into a school to be able to propel my environment, my culture to a different level.”
Lyles said she supported the policies of her district and her school to keep everyone safe. She said would have a mask on or off depending on the situation and available space.
“When I’m around my students, I’ll have my mask on,” she said.
Many of the parents and high schoolers who talked to CNN on Tuesday said they believed that politics likely played a role in the masking decisions in this conservative county that voted more than 70% for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
But in contrast to heated school board meetings in Virginia and a threat to withhold funding from schools mandating masks in Florida, the atmosphere at the Barrow County school was calm, inclusive and courteous.
Parents, students and staff said they respected each others’ decisions to mask or not, even if CDC guidance calls for all of them to mask indoors to stop the spread of the virus.
Principal Simpson said cases and the spread of the pandemic would continue to be monitored.
“If a mandate becomes necessary in the future or additional precautions — we just have to be responsive to the situation,” he said.
A key sentiment was that school was important — and being on campus was important.
That view was echoed by parent Miriam Robinson, who was dropping off her 14-year-old son Micah.
She said she was excited that students did not have to wear masks as she believed it made it easier for them to interact and learn, and as she felt the risks were lower in her more rural area.
But above all, she wanted her children in school.
“If given the option, I would choose face to face, with masks, all day, for the rest of life, than being online,” she said.
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