On the morning of July 9, Katherine Gates knew that Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden was scheduled to make his final presentation of the school system’s plan for returning to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year later that day to the Forsyth County Board of Education. Gates had seen the plans after they were first made public, and the incoming senior at South Forsyth High School was discouraged by the language regarding face masks – instead of required to be worn by students and staff, face masks would be “expected.”
Gates had read studies about the effectiveness of wearing face masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. She had researched the community transmission in country’s that had mandated face masks be worn in public. Both convinced Gates that mandating face masks in schools would be the best way to ensure the safety of students and staff and keep schools open.
That morning, Gates decided to write Bearden an email. In it, she pleaded for him to show “strong decisive leadership” and change the school system’s reopening plan to include a face mask mandate.
“A final push in what I thought was the right direction,” Gates said.
Gates never heard back from Bearden, but her letter has gained widespread attention from students, parents, and Atlanta media outlets after it was posted to the neighborhood social network Nextdoor and Instagram. Soon after, other students at local high schools were inspired to create online petitions and email campaigns asking Bearden and other officials to mandate face masks.
“It’s gotten a ton of interest,” Gates said, “which is great.”
Forsyth County Schools approved the plan that Bearden presented July 9 with the language that face masks would be “expected” and not mandated. During the special-called meeting, Bearden acknowledged the benefits of wearing a face mask in public when social distancing is not possible “has been very well articulated and documented in the medical community.”
But Bearden said he is “opposed” to requiring them in schools after hearing from parents who say their kids can’t wear a face mask for long periods of time because of health issues and feel the school system’s remote learning option isn’t a good fit for their family. Staff members have expressed similar concerns about wearing face coverings, too, Bearden said.
Students will be “expected” to wear a face covering “whenever feasible,” according to the final guidelines, but they will not face discipline for not wearing a face covering or be incentivized to wear one, Bearden said.
Instead, schools will “positively promote” wearing a face covering.
“My staff and I will model that expectation,” Bearden said.
While Forsyth County Schools is offering online learning this school year, Gates wants to return to school. She misses it, she says, and wants as normal an experience for her senior year as possible.
Plus, the school system’s online learning option isn’t viable for her. The Forsyth Virtual Academy, which is available for middle and high school students, doesn’t offer all the advanced classes that Gates is taking.
Gates says online learning isn’t an option for many other families and students, too. Families may have two working parents or lack the financial means to access technology and academic help, like tutors. Students with learning disabilities might find the virtual environment difficult.
Bearden previously said during a trip to the White House that it is “critical” that schools reopen for the 2020-21 year after being forced to close last spring because of COVID-19 so that school systems can provide services that many students rely on them for.
“A lot of people have to come to school,” Gates said.
But without requiring face masks, Gates says she feels uneasy about returning to school. She worries it could lead to a greater spread of the virus and put school staff at risk while also creating a social divide between students.
“You know, it’s high school,” Gates said. “Kids judge each other, kids look at what the majority’s doing, and they want to be in the majority. If there’s a clear visible majority of students wearing masks, I think everybody else will follow. But if students wearing the masks are in the minority, I just know that a lot of them will take them off just to fit in and do what everybody else is doing.”
Gates hoped her letter would sway Bearden. She still does. The Forsyth County Board of Education’s next regular meeting is Tuesday, July 21, where members plan to take a final vote on the system’s budget, calendar and millage rate. There are currently no plans for items to be added to the agenda, according to Jennifer Caracciolo, director of communications with the school system.
“I think that having that online option and making it better, making it more comprehensive, offering everything you need and having in-person schooling for the students who need that with mandated masks is both the most effective and realistic way to mitigate community spread,” Gates said.