The rise and spread of the Delta variant in the United States and Alabama and the increase in new cases of Covid-19 and hospitalizations in the Auburn community have spurred policy-makers to take up preventative measures again, including mask mandates.
The Delta variant, a highly contagious strain of SARS-CoV-2 that an internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said is as transmissible as chicken pox, is now the dominant strain in Alabama. The variant is currently driving the surge in new cases and hospitalizations in the state.
The new data and guidance from local health care officials prompted Auburn City Schools to require face coverings/masks inside school buildings and school buses to start the school year. Face coverings will not be required for outside activities, like physical education, recess or athletics.
East Alabama Health released a statement Monday in support of wearing masks in school settings.
"We were all thrilled to go through a few months where masks were optional due to lower case counts. However, with the Covid positivity rate being extremely high in the vast majority of Alabama counties now due to the Delta variant being so contagious, it’s definitely time to mask again," stated the unattributed quote in the news release. "So we encourage the wearing of masks by all individuals in situations where social distancing is not possible and certainly that would apply to schools. We applaud these efforts and thank them for their support during this pandemic."
The mask mandate went into effect on Monday and runs through Sept. 17. The ACS Board of Education will consider an extension or reversal of the policy at its meeting in September after considering data and the recommendation of ACS Superintendent Kristen Herring, who made her mask recommendation at a special-called meeting last week "with the priority of returning safely to full-time, in-person learning on campus."
"I'm committed to the diligent study of our school data, the data of our local community, and the assessment of our safe return to school," said Herring at a special-called meeting last Thursday.
The mask mandate did not go over well with parents in attendance at last Thursday's meeting, which ended with parents storming out, with some screaming at school board members as they left, after Herring's recommendation was approved by the BOE.
The reasons parents pushed back against the mask mandate were varied.
Some cited "studies" that they said showed masks were ineffective at limiting the transmission of the coronavirus or even harmful to children. One parent cited a study, which was actually a research letter, published in JAMA Pediatrics and later blasted over the airwaves by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson that claimed that the carbon dioxide levels inhaled by children wearing masks were harmful and that children should not be forced to wear masks. That letter has since been retracted by JAMA Pediatrics.
Another "study" cited at the meeting as evidence that masks were harmful to children was completed by the University of Florida Mass Spectrometry Research and Education Center, which collected masks worn by children and conducted a requested, paid lab test. It found that the masks contained disease-causing pathogens, most of which are common. The study did not have a methodology and wasn't published or peer reviewed. The World Health Organization called it a "pseudo-study" and Dr. Benjamin Neuman, an infectious disease expert at Texas A&M University-Texarkana who reviewed the findings, said "the full results show clearly that the majority of data did not fit the narrative of masks making children sick, and was not reported," according to a fact check by Agence France-Presse.
Other parents correctly pointed out that Covid-19 doesn't affect children as harshly as adults and that they are less likely to transmit the virus to others.
"The likelihood that they will become sick is quite small. That data is pretty clear," said Kim Sirmans, who spoke during the special-called meeting.
Other parents loudly complained that the school board was taking away their parental autonomy in making health decisions for their children, who some said had been affected not only physically but socially and emotionally as well.
"As a parent, I want to choose for my child," said Andrea Tobin, who said masks have exacerbated the challenges for her son. "My son has struggled with speech therapy, and he has struggled with it since he was 2 years old. And then we put him in a mask. He could not talk; he could not articulate. I don't want my baby boy going into second grade not being able to articulate himself, not being able to feel like he can hear himself speaking because of his mask.
"This isn't an everybody fits one system. There are children with other needs; their are parents with other concerns."
The CDC updated its guidance for Covid-19 prevention in schools in early July, while stressing the importance of offering in-person learning. The CDC's guidance for schools recommends a multi-prong, layered approach for prevention, including vaccination when eligible, social distancing and masking. The guidance also said that, in general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors.
Parents with children in Auburn City Schools also brought up their concerns on Tuesday night to the City Council, which appoints ACS Board of Education members but has no say over their decisions.
Parents generally shared the same concerns with the Council that they voiced at the BOE meeting, with one parent complaining that the BOE already seemed to have made up its mind and didn't consult with parents or weigh what they thought before making what they considered a pre-determined decision. While the BOE did vote on the matter after hearing from parents at the special-called meeting, Auburn City Schools staff had already pre-printed a press release with Herring's mask mandate recommendation before the meeting.
"They basically had their decision made before even hearing everybody speak," said Stephen Smith.