Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Aug. 5 to reflect new mask ordinances from local public health officials, as well as updated policies for local school systems.
By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Here we go again.
Throughout the spring and much of summer vacation, things were looking up on the coronavirus front.
It looked like the 2021-22 school year would be a 180-degree turn from the first days of 2020-21. But rising cases of COVID-19 in the state and the country have some communities debating whether masks should be required in schools.
While Over the Mountain public school districts were initially leaning toward mask-optional policies, the COVID-19 climate has been heating up as the Delta variant has become prevalent. The highly transmissible variant now accounts for more than 80 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the country.
New daily COVID-19 cases in Alabama have increased by more than nine times the number reported early in the month of July, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Unvaccinated patients represented an estimated 96.2% of COVID-related deaths in Alabama from April 1 to July 13, according to a release from ADPH.
Alabama is the least vaccinated state in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the only state in the country where fewer than 40% of the population has had at least one vaccination shot.
The majority of local school districts released their reopening plans in late July, outlining a return to mostly if not completely traditional in-person schooling. So, what does that mean for masks?
Following recent updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the Alabama Department of Public Health issued new guidelines for Alabama Schools on Aug. 2.
The ADPH toolkit states that masks and social distancing of at least three feet (six feet is better) are required in order for schools to open safely. It goes on to note that if both of these requirements are followed, students who are asymptomatic will not have to quarantine if they have been exposed to COVID-19.
“For those who are eligible, vaccination remains our most potent strategy for preventing disease among students, faculty and staff, and vaccination also eliminates the need for quarantine among many of the close contacts in our schools,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, in a release. “Other mitigation strategies, such as face coverings, distancing, and hygiene measures are also important, especially in those communities that are experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission.”
In response to the updated guidelines, Homewood City Schools and Mountain Brook Schools have reversed their initial plans in favor of requiring masks while indoors.
Homewood City Schools made its announcement on Aug. 2, stating, “If last year taught us anything, we know how important in-person instruction is for our students. In order to keep our students and teachers in the classrooms, facial coverings will be required inside school buildings. Facial coverings inside our schools will significantly reduce the number of students who are required to quarantine.”
Mountain Brook Schools made its updated policy announcement on Aug. 4.
In a letter to the school community, Superintendent Dr. Dicky Barlow states, “To be very clear, these decisions are not determined by petitions, popularity or political leanings. These decisions are made solely on the recommendations and consultations with our public health officials who are trained and have the expertise to make such recommendations.”
Hoover City Schools, Shelby County City Schools and Vestavia Hills City Schools each announced in late July that masks will be optional for faculty and students.
The Hoover City Schools Board of Education will host a special called work session Aug. 5 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the school district’s reopening plan. The session will be livestreamed and available on the system’s YouTube channel.
For more information and updates, check your local school system’s website.