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West Side Elementary School students hop off the bus and head into the school on the first day of the new school year, Aug. 3, 2021.

As students and staff have returned to classrooms across Georgia, no issue has divided school boards and communities quite like face masks.

Marietta Schools Superintendent Grant Rivera announced Thursday that the system would require masks for its approximately 8,900 students, 1,200 employees and any school visitors, regardless of vaccination status. He cited a dramatic increase in COVID-19 transmission in schools.

“My expectation is that the mask requirement is temporary, and we can soon resume a greater sense of normalcy in our schools,” Rivera wrote, adding the district would review coronavirus data weekly.

The Cobb County School District’s main office, meanwhile, has been host to pro- and anti-mask mandate protesters as Superintendent Chris Ragsdale has maintained that masking will be optional in the district’s schools. Cobb County Schools has approximately 107,000 students.

“Masks are strongly encouraged, but they will remain optional at this time,” Ragsdale said at a Thursday night school board meeting. “When looking at school districts who have mask mandates in place, some districts who have mask mandates in place have higher numbers than us, while some have lower numbers than us. Mandatory masking is not without a cost.”

After saying earlier this year that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks in most situations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and recommended that everyone wear masks indoors as the delta variant surges. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the vaccine for children under 12.

In November, the entire Marietta school board is up for election. The MDJ contacted candidates to ask them whether they support school mask mandates and why they feel the way they do. The MDJ received 10 responses. The candidates’ positions on mandates ranged from reluctant support to measured disapproval to dodging the question. They are listed below.

Ward 1 candidates

Alex Castro

Castro did not list contact information on his qualifying paperwork and the MDJ was unsuccessful in other attempts to reach him.

Jeff DeJarnett

”I understand this is a volatile issue but personally, I am not in favor of a mask mandate.”

Lisa Lindsay

Lindsay did not respond to an email seeking comment by press time.

Ward 2 candidates

PJ Hardy

“Let’s be clear, the science supports using masks in schools. But being definitive on how well they work gets complicated. Decision-makers looking at the evidence are understanding it differently because it’s legitimately confusing. Mandating the use of masks in Marietta Schools is a risk decision laden with trade-offs and MCS stakeholders who perceive these risks similarly may actually prefer different trade-offs. We have to find common ground.

“So, what’s important to all of us? I believe it’s to keep our kids, teachers and faculty safe, and to protect the school year. We now have plenty of evidence demonstrating the outcomes of in-person learning far outweighing those of the virtual learning environment. The data show that socialization is a huge part of a child’s learning process, their intellectual development and overall well-being. These are the principles that should underpin the tough decisions we face this school year.”

Jason Waters, incumbent

“I generally do not support mask mandates and am very much supportive of parental rights when it comes to their child’s health and education. I’m thankful that the current mask mandate is limited to a short time period with an off-ramp as numbers decline. I do believe local real-time data should drive mask mandates. I also believe that the effectiveness of quarantines should be continuously evaluated as they are very disruptive to learning, and we need to know if they are actually stopping the spread.

“The good news on the pandemic is other sunbelt states are topping out, and Georgia should be right behind them with cases falling soon.”

Ward 3 candidates

A.B. Almy

“This isn’t an easy question, and there aren’t easy solutions. I want our kids to never wear masks again. I want COVID to be completely over. But it isn’t. With COVID numbers in Cobb nearing their peaks from last winter, we need to do everything we can to keep our kids in the classroom. That is my priority. Study after study show how damaging virtual learning is to kids – it stunts their growth socially and academically, leads to depression and anxiety, and robs them of the childhood we all want for them. In the classroom is where our kids are best challenged and most able to realize their amazing potential. Masks will help keep our kids in the classroom by limiting quarantines, which have forced so many students to be at home already in these first three weeks. Therefore, I am in favor of temporarily returning to a mask mandate.”

Erica D. Bush

Bush did not list contact information on her qualifying paperwork and the MDJ was unsuccessful in other attempts to reach her.

Ward 4 candidates

George Darden

“Because it is critical that we keep our children in school, I support any measures that we need to take that will ensure that in-person learning continues in an environment safe for teachers and students. MCS’s ability to absorb data and swiftly adjust our approach is the main reason we have been able to keep our schools open during this difficult time. On Thursday, the Superintendent offered alarming evidence of increased infections and in-school transmission, and I therefore believe that the Board and the Superintendent made the right decision to temporarily reinstitute a mask mandate. I look forward to the time when masks are no longer necessary.”

Jaillene Hunter

“Given significant learning loss over the last 18 months in our schools, students need to be in the classroom, full time, with as few obstacles to learning as possible. I believe mask wearing should be a decision left to individual students and their parents, however, should MCS data conclusively show mask wearing in our schools reduces transmission during times of high community spread, then I would let the data drive such a decision in a limited and temporary manner. And any such data should be transparent and publicly available. Fortunately, students and teachers over 12 have had the opportunity to get vaccinated, virtual learning is available for those with that need or preference, and according to the CDC, healthy children under 12 face minimal risk of severe illness. As we move forward, my hope is our community can come together to address the learning loss of our students so every student can succeed.”

Angie Smith

“As a mom, it’s disheartening to see the continued spread of corona virus throughout our community. Dozens of children in our school district are currently either infected with the virus or quarantined at home because of a close contact. Everyday we hear new stories about educators and students becoming seriously ill and even dying from this horrible disease. Masks and vaccines help prevent these horrendous and gut wrenching outcomes. Just like everyone else, I want my kids in school, learning face to face from their amazing teachers and with their classmates. Unfortunately, without a mandate many if not most students do not wear masks. If a mask mandate helps my children, their teachers and friends remain healthy, safe, and together in school, I am in favor of it.”

Ward 5 candidates

Angela Orange, incumbent

“The health and well-being of our students is paramount. I understand that we care for our students in partnership with parents, caregivers and the entire community. The proliferation of the Delta variant has thrown us back into uncertainty in this COVID-19 pandemic. Science is clear that the surest way to defeat this virus and offer our children a normal school experience is for most eligible individuals to get vaccinated.”

Ward 6 candidate

Kerry Minervini, incumbent

“Because there is still so much uncertainty regarding Covid cases and transmission, Marietta City Schools will continue to review and analyze our district’s data on a regular basis allowing us to adjust when needed. We have many mitigation strategies in place with masks being one that can be implemented if necessary. These strategies in conjunction with MCS sponsored testing and vaccination clinics are intended to keep our students, staff and families as safe as possible while preserving the ability to maintain face to face instruction which is crucial to student learning and engagement.”

Ward 7 candidate

Irene Berens, incumbent

”I am grateful for the opportunity to serve our community. The decisions regarding masks will be made with the best interest of our students, staff and employees in mind. Decisions will also be evaluated with any new information.”

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(2) comments

CRAIG BARFIELD

If masks work then let those parents who want to mask up their kids do so. The numbers show that kids are not spreaders of covid nor so if teachers are vaccinated and those who want to wear a mask do so then everyone should be safe. We forget that this virus is very dangerous to specific groups of people and kids are the least likely to be hurt by it unless they have a health condition. Stop the fear mongering and let the kids get back to learning.

Tim Hedeen

There's not a question as to whether masks make a difference; the current understanding shared by credible and legitimate experts is that they do. To say "parents should decide" is to leave an important public health issue in the hands of those who are often willfully misinformed. Caring, thoughtful communities don't do that. Further, claims of fear-mongering and the costs of masks are both forms of denial; I hope you won't lose any family or friends to COVID, but our community has lost people young and old--some without any co-morbidities--to this virus. Our local hospitals are nearly full, so we'd do well to take every precaution available. Mask mandates are part of the solution.

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