CANTON — With coronavirus infections spiking across North Georgia and River Ridge High School possibly facing another virus-related shutdown, Cherokee County school leaders are preparing a new strategy to increase the use of face masks by students.
At their November meeting, board of education members had discussed whether to require students to wear face coverings at school to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Thursday night, Superintendent Brian Hightower presented board members with information on what other area school systems’ policies are regarding masks amid the ongoing pandemic.
“In lieu of a mask mandate — if you were not to vote a mandate — we do see the spike, that is, a surge that concerns us ... we would recommend us changing our strategic communication plan in an attempt to increase student mask usage,” Hightower said.
Following the presentation school board members did not discuss or vote on implementing a mask mandate. Sixteen speakers — evenly divided for and against a mask mandate — had addressed the board before Hightower’s presentation.
Hightower said that after the upcoming Christmas-New Year’s holiday break, students and parents would be notified that mask wearing by students would be “expected,” rather than the current language that mask use is “encouraged,” accompanied by increased communication on the benefits of following the advice of public health experts. The basics of pandemic infection control outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and others for the ongoing pandemic are: Maintain at least six feet from others, wash or sanitize your hands frequently and wear a face covering in public.
Part of the Cherokee County School District effort to get more students to wear masks would include students encouraging their peers to mask up. Students would be asked to participate in contests to create videos and posters, similar to the system’s successful anti-vaping campaign, system spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby said following Thursday’s meeting.
“My biggest concern around this is keeping healthy students and healthy employees at work and doing what they need to be doing,” school board Chairwoman Kyla Cromer said. “When you think this is a 90-day semester, we’ve had kids quarantined for 30 days or 40 days of that. If we get more people wearing masks, I don’t care how that happens, because I think that helps cut down the number of cases.”
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 almost 81 new coronavirus infections per day over the past two weeks — 16 per day higher than a month ago. And, the coronavirus positivity rate among those tested has been 11.5% 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% as creating a higher risk of virus transmission in schools.
Since schools reopened for in-person learning on Aug. 3, nearly 11,000 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. The system serves more than 40,0000 students.
The system publishes a daily status report on cases in the schools and number of quarantined.
Meanwhile, a surge in the number of students and staff quarantined at River Ridge High School is very near the level that has forced previous two-week closures, officials said.
”We’re going to be having conversations (Friday) about the status of River Ridge,” Hightower told board members. He said making the call to close the school and shift students to online learning could wait until Saturday as officials closely monitor the number of infections and those in quarantine.
Next week is finals week for students and Hightower said students have been prepared to take finals online if needed.
River Ridge students returned from their second school-wide quarantine on Nov. 30.