Hundreds of parents urge mask mandates as new school year begins
By WILLIAM MARLOW / Special to the Reporter
Hundreds of parents are petitioning Shelby County Schools to enact a school mask mandate as thousands of the district’s students begin in-person classes this week.
More than 500 people have signed a petition on Change.org expressing concerns over the district’s optional masking policy for both students and school faculty.
Jennifer Burczyk-Brown, who created the petition, said that her opposition to the policy stems from an ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state. Brown, whose two children are enrolled in Shelby County Schools, both returned to in-person classes on Thursday, Aug. 13.
“I am deeply concerned about the rise of COVID-19 cases in our metropolitan area. Given the low adoption of the vaccine in our county, it isn’t surprising that we haven’t made greater strides in reducing the prevalence of this virus in our area,” she said. “As a result, our only remaining acceptable response is to revert to masks.”
The Alabama Department of Health lists Shelby County as having a high level of transmission based on both the case rate and percent positivity from Aug. 6-13.
The ADPH reported 361 new COVID-19 cases in Shelby County in the last seven days, with health experts expecting more cases in the coming weeks as the contagious COVID-19 delta variant continues to spread.
Brown said the increase in cases is troubling and although both her children have been vaccinated, she said breakthrough cases are now occurring due to the delta variant. Brown added that in some instances, the new strain of the virus is resulting in severe illness among children.
“Although earlier strains of the virus did not typically affect children to a severe degree, that did not mean that they were invulnerable and it seems delta is leading to even more children requiring hospitalization, and in some cases, critical care,” she said.
This marks the second petition that has been created thus far requesting SCS enact a mask mandate for the district’s schools. On Aug. 10, more than 30 pediatricians in both Shelby and Jefferson counties urged a mask mandate for SCS and school boards across the state.
In the letter, health experts specifically cited the emergence of the delta variant as a major reason for a mask mandate, describing the variant as a severe public health risk.
Brown said schools should heed health experts’ recommendations regarding mask mandates.
“Every single reputable health advocate in the U.S. and more locally has sounded the alarm about the severity and contagiousness of the delta variant. I am guided by science and trust their expertise,” she said. “SCS should follow the guidance offered by the CDC, AAP and the ADPH and require masks of all members of the school community.”
The SCS reopening plan for the 2021-2022 school year includes in-person as well as virtual instruction options.
Traditional on-campus, in-person instruction will be available for students in grades K-12.
The school district’s virtual option, Virtual Shelby, is only for students in grades 6-12, and students must have already met district qualifications (the deadline has passed).
The first two days of school were also staggered for traditional and virtual students, but all in-person students returned to campus beginning Monday, Aug. 16.
Students are urged to practice social distancing as much as possible and wash their hands frequently, but COVID vaccinations are not required to return to school.
However, Brown has issue with vaccinations only being optional for in-person learning, and said all elementary students and even some students at the middle-school level are currently ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has currently only approved vaccinations for children 12 years and older.
“A significant portion of SCS students are ineligible for the vaccine, so without masks, they are defenseless,” she said. “If all children will be attending in-person school and the vaccine is unapproved for a significant chunk of the SCS population, the best available mitigation effort is to require all members of the school community, vaccinated or not, to continue to wear masks.”
Brown said only time will tell just how many children become infected as a result of masks not being made mandatory, but added that other school systems that have opted for voluntary masking have faced outbreaks in recent weeks, with students even being forced to quarantine.
“It may be true that the lion’s share of people who get exposed to this virus will remain largely unaffected; however, the more contagious the strain the more likely there will be adverse outcomes,” she said.
Ultimately, Brown said vaccinations are the key to returning to normalcy.
“Each of my children has been vaccinated. We opted to make sure they had this degree of protection as soon as it was available for their age group and as they had met the eligibility criteria,” she said. “Ideally, I’d like to see every eligible individual get vaccinated as soon as possible, for their own protection and for the protection of the rest of our community.”
Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks said in drafting school COVID-19 safety protocols that district leaders reviewed the guidance of the CDC, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) as well as local pediatricians and other health officials.
“Shelby County Schools strongly recommends masks for everyone, but they are not required except on school buses. Our goal is ultimately to open schools in a safe way and to keep them open so that students can receive the education they deserve,” Brooks said. “We strongly believe that in order to reduce the number of positive cases, this must be a collective effort of the entire community and not solely the responsibility of schools.”
In addition to strongly recommending mask usage, the school district has also implemented layered mitigation strategies such as promoting good hygiene practices, increasing cleaning and ventilation, and limiting visitors inside schools.
According to the SCS reopening plan, COVID-19 mitigation and prevention efforts will be ongoing throughout the school year, and if changes do occur, it will be communicated with the district’s staff, students and community members.
Concerning vaccinations, the school district said that Alabama Senate Bill 267, also known as Alabama’s Vaccine Passport legislation, prohibits state and local governments, including schools, from inquiring about a person’s COVID immunization status. This applies to both staff and students. Currently, the COVID vaccination is not required for students to enroll in schools.
However, Shelby County Schools did partner with UAB to hold a voluntary vaccination clinic in March which was well-attended by SCS employees, Brooks said.
Parents with questions or concerns may email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view the full petition, visit Change.org/p/shelby-county-al-board-of-education-keep-masks-in-shelby-county-schools?redirect=false.