U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, who represents the majority of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties in Georgia’s 7th Congressional district, sent letters to Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Jeff Bearden and Gov. Brian Kemp criticizing the reopening of local schools and urging leaders to follow federal guidelines for reopening.
In a letter to Bearden written on Wednesday, Feb. 17, Bourdeaux said she had heard from constituents that local schools were open for in-person instruction, “but the school district is not following basic health and safety guidance developed as issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, most notably wearing masks while attending school.”
“While many of us at the state and federal levels are working hard to expedite the distribution of the vaccine and to secure further resources for schools across Georgia, until we can get past this crisis, I strongly encourage Forsyth County Schools to follow the CDC guidelines for basic public health safety practices," Bourdeaux said in the letter. "These measures were developed to protect teachers, school support staff, children and their families while schools are open to in-person learning.”
In a statement on Thursday, Forsyth County Schools officials confirmed they had received the letter and said the system was working with the state Department of Health and willing to provide data to Bourdeaux’s office.
“As one of the few school districts in Georgia and the United States that has not only provided parents/guardians a choice between face-to-face learning at school and virtual learning from home, but who has also been working with the local Department of Public Health to be safely open for learning since August, we welcome the opportunity to provide her information on our health and safety measures,” the statement said.
In her letter, Bourdeaux said over the last month, Forsyth County had been in a high, or red, transmission level and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia has had nearly 14,000 deaths and more than 795,000 cases of the disease.
“Despite these numbers, Forsyth County is operating in-person learning without taking basic public safety measures,” Bourdeaux said.
In a similar letter to Kemp, Bourdeaux also criticized Forsyth County Schools response, saying “many school districts — including Forsyth County in my own congressional district — are not following even the most basic aspects of the” CDC guidelines and urged Kemp to work with the state’s Department of Health and individual school districts to ensure schools are following safe practices.
“While I continue to support prioritizing vaccination of our teachers and school support staff, the state has chosen a different path,” she said. “It is now more important than ever that state leaders … take action to ensure school safety, until the vaccine is widely available. Tragically, several teachers and paraprofessionals have already died after contracting COVID-19.
“I have heard a number of stories of others in schools who have contracted the disease or found that they may have unwittingly spread it to members of their family.”
In both letters, Bourdeaux said the CDC had adopted new guidelines for reopening schools that included universal and correct use of masks, physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities and contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the health department.
“As a working mother, I am deeply sympathetic about the desire for in-person learning,” Bourdeaux said. “As a member of Congress, I am working as hard as I can to support federal and state efforts to increase vaccination access as rapidly as possible. However, it is incumbent upon all of us to continue protecting our community by following public health guidelines.”
After reviewing the petition and receiving concerned emails from parents, members of the Board of Education came together to put together a statement, which they provided to the Forsyth County News in an email in January.
“Through this difficult time, we want you to know we have received your emails, phone calls, petitions and feedback,” the statement reads. “We appreciate everyone’s concerns and understand this is a sensitive subject for every family.
“Currently, the Forsyth County Board of Education does not support a mask mandate for all students,” it continues. “All students and staff are expected to wear a mask when feasible: buses, classrooms, corridors, etc. All staff are required to wear a mask in the presence of students if they are unable to social distance. We have full confidence in the systems and policies that are currently in place and will continue to evaluate the data daily to keep our school communities safe. Thank you for your continued support and practice of COVID preventive actions: Mask Up, Wash Up, Back Up, Clean Up, and Cover Up.”
Bearden, along with Forsyth County principals, have put out reminders to students and parents throughout the first semester of school asking that they keep COVID-19 measures in mind both on and off their school campuses and encouraging them to wear masks when they can.
Despite the encouragement to wear face masks and follow safety measures, school leaders and community members noticed a drop in the number of students wearing face masks while at school, causing concern among some parents and students.
Some have shared their concerns with the board, including one mother, Kelly Morton, who attended a board meeting in November to ask that they mandate masks in school after she said her daughter gave up on a career pathway to switch to virtual learning. She said the lack of masks in school was too overwhelming for her daughter.
Other parents, teachers and students have echoed similar sentiments in comments that they wrote along with their signature on the petition, filled out via a Google Form.
Many of the comments are from parents and students who share that virtual learning has been difficult for them, and some commented they would much rather attend school in person. Without the guarantee of the added safety measure, though, they expressed concerns for their family’s health.
“I really struggle doing virtual school so I will do anything it takes, especially something as simple as wearing masks to get my education,” one student wrote. “Masks only work if everyone wears them.”
While some have brought concerns over the lack of masks to school leaders before, the petition was started right before the start of the second semester, which began for students on Wednesday, as many started to worry about a potential spike in COVID-19 cases following the holidays.
The school system saw a significant spike in cases following Thanksgiving break at the end of November, with the district reporting 165 positive cases among a total of 41,296 face-to-face students and staff the week following the break and another 204 cases in the week after that.
Bearden predicted during the last BOE meeting in December that the district would see a similar spike at the start of the second semester. In the two days before the first day of school back for students, 215 face-to-face students and staff reported positive COVID-19 cases.
As of Thursday, Feb. 18, 21 out of 43,532 face-to-face students and staff reported positive cases.
FCS Spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo said that, despite the increase in cases within the school system in Forsyth County, cases are still low compared to surrounding districts.
For updates from FCS and more information about the district’s COVID-19 guidelines, visit forsyth.k12.ga.us