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Mask mandate in Richmond County schools: What you need to know

Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 9:57 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - With masks now required for students and teachers returning to school next week in Richmond County, you may have questions. Here are some answers.

Why was the decision made?

The rise in positive cases in our area, low vaccination rate, and the 17,351 students under the age of 12 unable to get the vaccine are the main reasons masks are back.

In Richmond County not having enough teachers and substitutes was why campuses were closing from time to time last school year. Now they’re hoping vaccines will reduce that problem.

The decision comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated guidance for K-12 schools issued Tuesday. Experts at the CDC urged the use of masks in school, regardless of vaccination status, as the super-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has COVID-19 cases rising across the country.

The school district said the decision was made “with the safety of its nearly 30,000 students and 4,000 employees as a priority” and in conjunction with the Georgia Department of Public Health and in light of COVID-19 conditions in Richmond County. Those conditions include positive case data, vaccine eligibility and vaccination rates.

“For us to bring all our students in and to do it safely is our priority and that’s why we’ve made this decision,” said Lynthia Ross, Richmond County School System chief public information officer.

“We should see fewer incidents of our teachers or our students even having to quarantine by taking this simple step,” said Ross.

When does the change take effect?

The change will take effect Aug. 2, when masks will be required for all students, staff and visitors to all Richmond County School System facilities and on school buses, regardless of vaccination status.

The move will come ahead of students’ return to the classroom. Elementary students will start school Aug. 5, while students attending K-8, middle and high schools will start Aug. 9.

However, open houses are scheduled for Aug. 2.

Are there any exceptions?

Students will be permitted to remove masks during lunch and while outside (on the playground, mask breaks, etc.).

Accommodations will be made for students and employees unable to wear a mask for documented medical reasons.

Anything else I should know?

According to CDC and state guidance, students or staff identified as close contacts to a positive case for COVID-19 will not have to quarantine if both are properly wearing masks in the school setting.

As COVID-19 conditions in our community change and guidance from the CDC and DPH is updated, the Richmond County School System will update COVID-19 mitigation plans throughout the 2021–22 school year.

What do parents think?

Many parents thought they wouldn’t have to make this decision again. Whether to send your kids to school or keep them at home.

“My goodness. ... I mean it’s just so tough,” said Kimba Henriques.

Henriques has three kids in the Richmond County School System. She says she’s keeping her kids home with COVID cases increasing.

“I’m just frightened for their health,” said Henriques. “Hopefully in a year everything will be leveled out. But for now, I don’t feel comfortable with it.”

A lot of kids suffered for going to virtual school, “failing out of school because the system was not designed for it,” said Henriques.

Henriques says she understands the reality that most parents won’t and can’t keep their kids home.

“For a lot of parents, this is completely new territory and they’re not comfortable making those financial sacrifices. They cant afford to. They can’t afford to make those sacrifices to keep their kids home,” she said.

We talked to another parent, Maria Rogers.

“I was hoping they wouldn’t require the face masks again because they’re so uncomfortable, but I understand if they say they need them it’s because they do because they can see what’s happening throughout the country and what’s happening here in Augusta, too,” she said.

“My daughter was home for the whole past year. She needs other people to talk to. So I am looking forward for her to go back to school to see her friends, see her teachers, to talk to other people,” said Rogers.

And if it has to be muffled conversation, it’s better than talking to a screen.

What about other districts?

For now, masks are optional for students in the Columbia County and Aiken County school districts. In the case of Aiken County, it’s a matter of state law.

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