With coronavirus infections rising in Cherokee County, school board members on Thursday night asked Superintendent Brian Hightower to come up with a recommendation on whether or not to implement a student mask requirement.

School board Chairwoman Kyla Cromer asked for a recommendation to be brought to the board at its next meeting on Dec. 10. The request came during a 33-minute discussion of the topic during Thursday night’s regular board meeting.

School board Vice-chairwoman Kelly Poole began the discussion after reading a letter from her daughter — a 2016 graduate of the school system — asking for a mask requirement.

“I am getting texts daily from teachers who are scared to go to school, but they can’t afford not to go, because they can’t feed their families if they don’t,” Poole said after reading the letter. “I want you to go home after tonight’s meeting and really think about this and do some soul searching and try to see what we can do to help our community and keep our kids in school.”

Since schools reopened for in-person learning on Aug. 3, there have been more than 70 instances of clusters of infections and more than 9,000 students and staff have been in quarantine because of being in close contact with an infected person, system Chief of Staff Mike McGowan told board members in an update on the system’s coronavirus data. Some students have had to quarantine multiple times, he said. The system serves more than 40,0000 students.

Over the past two weeks infections have increased in the community and in the school system, officials said. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, Cherokee County has averaged more than 65 new coronavirus infections per day over the past two weeks. And, the coronavirus positivity rate among those tested has been 9.8 percent locally over the past two weeks, according to DPH. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe a positivity rate of more than 8 percent as creating a higher risk of virus transmission in schools.

The system publishes a daily status report on cases in the schools and number of quarantined. The most recent report from Thursday is here.

Next week’s Thanksgiving holiday break is both good news and bad news officials said. The time off will reduce the number of quarantined people when schools reopen on Nov. 30. But, McGowan said, the system has seen spikes in coronavirus infections after school breaks this year.

Cherokee County schools reopened for the current school year with new safety precautions to prevent spread of the virus that sparked the ongoing pandemic. Schools have upgraded filters in heating and cooling systems, required staff to wear masks when not able to maintain at least six-feet of distance from others, along with increased disinfecting of school buildings and providing hand sanitizers in classrooms.

But, there has been strong opposition from parents of students to any requirement that students wear masks. To date, the system’s policy has been to encourage students to wear masks, but various speakers Thursday night described usage by students as low — perhaps less than 10 percent.

“Before we started we got threatened with ‘if you mandate a mask, we’ll send our kids somewhere else,’” school board member Clark Menard said Thursday. He said the reason for low mask use by students can be seen outside schools in low levels of usage among adults in the community.

Most of the board members expressed skepticism about requiring student mask use.

“I know I don’t us to have to shut down like we did last March,” Cromer said. “That’s not a good model for us. It’s not a good model for our kids.”

Hightower told members he and his staff would look at the issue and provide them a recommendation at the December meeting.

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Managing Editor

Gary Tanner is managing editor of The Cherokee Tribune, Cherokee Ledger-News and Cherokee Life magazine. He has been working as a journalist since 1985.

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