The requirement does not apply to students or visitors to schools, but the district, the largest in Georgia, will “strongly encourage” them to wear masks.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill in March that allows parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates. Gwinnett’s current mask policy was adopted in February after the CDC changed its guidance.
The district policy states that once in effect, a mask requirement will remain until the transmission risk drops to medium or low for two weeks. However, Towns said in this situation, the district will not wait two weeks.
Al Taylor, chief of schools, noted that COVID-19 affected summer programs and summer school. “We’re unable to operate school efficiently if we don’t have staff present in the building,” he said.
Teachers who addressed the board said they had an immediate negative reaction when they learned masks would be required when they returned to work.
“I love teaching, and I pride myself on making great relationships with students and parents. And I absolutely love teaching middle school math,” said Whitney Nalepa. “But wearing the mask changes my love for this job. Wearing the mask prevents me from truly connecting with all my students.”
Multiple teachers noted that the district implemented a new literacy program that they will struggle to teach if they’re wearing a mask. “As educators, we’ve been looking forward to launching this new program. Now our hands are tied and our mouths are covered,” Bri Shelton said.
Outside, people carried signs with phrases like “make masks optional” and “masks impede learning.” One child held a sign that said, “I want to see my teacher’s face.” They shared a survey by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators that found 76% of 3,100 Gwinnett school employees in the survey said they opposed a mask requirement.
Philana Nowak said she has two special needs children who were essentially unable to learn when they and their teachers had to wear masks. She said they would struggle to communicate if there were a teacher mask requirement. Others chimed in that English learners or students with hearing difficulties may rely on reading lips.
Many demonstrating against masks turned their attention to another group: Representatives of several local activist groups gathered to share a progress report on Superintendent Calvin Watts’ first year. They shared dissatisfaction with his performance, saying they wanted to see bolder and swifter change to address inequities in discipline, lack of mental health resources, over-full classes and other issues.
The group didn’t mention district mask rules, but some demonstrators shouted over their speeches. At one point, they chanted “mask choice” as a student described the minimization of Black history and experiences at her school.
Earlier in the day, Dr. Audrey Arona, director of the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health departments, briefed the board about the BA.5 variant, hospital capacities and local transmission levels.
Board Vice Chair Steve Knudsen, who pushed back against the previous mask mandate, said he wondered about the emotional and mental effects a requirement will have on teachers. He also raised questions about the effectiveness of masks.
Arona said that masks are one element in preventing the spread of the virus. She pledged to send Knudsen studies about their effectiveness.
Another metro area district made a similar decision to Gwinnett’s.
Clayton County Public Schools announced that all employees and visitors will be required to wear masks in school buildings starting July 25.
“This proactive step is being taken in an effort to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus within our district and limit the potential for instructional disruption,” a district news release stated.