Citing data from August and the first 3 days of September for new Covid-19 infections of Fayette County residents, the county school system administration has extended the facial covering mandate for all students and staff of the system from Sept. 17 through the week of Oct. 25.
The system’s letter to parents acknowledged that cases within schools have “greatly decreased” but that cases outside the confines of the system’s 24 schools have not followed the same downward trend.
As a result, the system letter said, “it is best for the health of our students and employees that the system-wide face covering mandate remains in place for the time being. The task force will reevaluate the status of the mandate the week of October 25; notification will follow as soon as a decision is made.”
The 2-week Covid infection rate as of Sept. 14 was 7.6%, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. That means that for every 100 tests administered, just under 8 tests were positive for the presence of the virus.
The cases per 100,000 population in Fayette County for the past 2 weeks, according to DPH and shown in the graphic above and below, were 563. If you divide 563 by 100,000, the resulting percentage is 0.005, or one-half of one percent.
Questions from The Citizen to the school system (emailed Sept. 14):
Previously the system announced a specific data point — 1% — that would trigger system reevaluation of the mask mandate, strongly implying that reaching that data point likely would result in going back to optional masking.
1. Is the system new-case load for 2 consecutive weeks under that 1% mark today? (The weekly system Covid report seems to show figures under 1% of the entire system — am I in error on this? If in error, what is the exact number of new cases for 2-weeks and what percentage does that represent?)
2. The letter sent to parents Sept. 10 by “the Fayette County School System” doesn’t mention the criteria described above. Why not?
3. The system seems to have abandoned the 1% trigger point in favor of a non-specific “best for our students and employees” with no specific criteria except what somebody determines is “best” for thousands of people. Is that going to be the “criteria” going forward — what seems best to somebody, with no metrics, no end point laid out in advance?
4. Who — specifically, by name and position — is calling the shots on this departure from the previous very specific policy? Who is on the Covid-19 Task Force?
5. What is the current specific policy goal so that the public may determine when that goal has been reached? What goal — including intermediate points — has the task force set, short of the absolute absence of any Covid-19 infections in Fayette County? The 1% policy had the virtue of being measurable and unambiguous. What new measurable and unambiguous set of data will be the trigger points for lifting the mask mandate?
6. The Friday email to parents was a constrained announcement of a significant news event. Why has no news release or notification of media occurred? Yes, parents were notified, but the system has a larger constituency — the voters and taxpayers — that also deserves to be notified. Who made that decision NOT to notify the public at large beyond the parents?
8. Is the Board of Education involved in the masking decision? Was BoE or a majority of its members involved in extending the mask mandate?
Here is the school system’s response from Public Information Officer Melinda Berry-Dreisbach on Sept. 14:
Cal: You are correct that our schools are under 1% with positive Covid-19 cases. We fell below the 1% mark after we implemented the system wide face covering mandate.
We did state that one component to lifting the mandate was that our school system needed to be below 1% for two consecutive weeks.
However, we also stated that the county positivity rate must fall below 1% for two consecutive weeks; that has not happened.
Piedmont Fayette Hospital is at capacity with positive Covid-19 patients. The Georgia Department of Public Health District 4 Covid-19 Operational Summary released last Friday shows that Fayette is in “substantial community spread.” The 14-day incident rate has increased 36%. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The period referenced by the District 4 release are the periods from Aug. 7–20 and Aug. 21–Sept. 3.] I have attached the report to this email for your reference.
What happens in the community is reflected in our schools. If we lifted the mandate now, most likely we would have to reinstate it in a couple of weeks. We want to avoid going back and forth with a mandate, so we will reevaluate at the end of October, looking at both the county’s postive case numbers and the school system’s.
It is our responsibility to keep our students and staff safe while they are in our buildings. The face covering mandate is a mitigation effort that we are using to help protect our students and staff from contracting the virus.
It is also allowing “close contact” students to remain in school. The Georgia Department of Public Health allows for a modified quarantine where persons exposed to a positive individual at school can remain in school as long as they and the positive person was wearing a face covering, and provided the close contact does not develop Covid-19 symptoms.
The majority of our parents are choosing the modified quarantine option even though home quarantining with synchronous learning is available. Our goal is to keep our schools open, and students in school; the face covering mandate is helping us achieve that goal.
Our Covid-19 Task Force is made up of myself, [Superintendent] Dr. [Jonathan] Patterson, our school nurse coordinator (two right now as one is retiring in November and the other is her replacement), a principal and assistant principal (two different schools), assistant superintendents and directors. We have male, female and minority representation.
We are in constant contact with our local health department, District 4 health, and the hospital for what is happening in our community, and to seek guidance when needed. The task force provides feedback and input to Dr. Patterson as well as makes recommendations. The decision is ultimately Dr. Patterson’s. The Fayette County Board of Education has not taken up the issue.
As you are aware, I typically send the local newspapers all correspondence after it is sent to parents. I forgot to send Friday’s notification to the county’s newspapers, I apologize. It was not intentional.
Here’s the email sent to parents of Fayette students:
September 10, 2021
Dear Parents and Guardians:
We have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of positive Covid-19 cases in our schools since implementing the system-wide face covering mandate on August 24. Also important to note is the significant decline in the number of students who are home quarantining because they were a close contact to someone at school who tested positive for the virus.
Having a system-wide face covering mandate in place for all students and employees has allowed us to use the Georgia Department of Public Health’s modified quarantine where close contacts can continue to come to school as long as they and the positive individual were wearing face coverings, and they are not exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms.
Overwhelmingly, our parents have chosen this option for their children even though home quarantining is still available along with synchronous learning throughout the quarantine period.
While the number of positive cases in our schools have greatly decreased, the same is not happening within our community.
For these reasons, our Covid-19 Task Force believes it is best for the health of our students and employees that the system-wide face covering mandate remains in place for the time being. The task force will reevaluate the status of the mandate the week of October 25; notification will follow as soon as a decision is made.
The task force will continue to monitor the number of cases within the community and our schools. You will receive another notice from the school system when a decision is made to remove the mandate.
Thank you for your cooperation and support of this effort. The face covering mandate is helping us keep our students in school and our employees working. We know students learn best when they are in school with their teachers; the mandate has allowed us to continue teaching and learning, and for that, we are grateful.
Again, thank you for your continued support.
Fayette County Public Schools