After hosting a lively debate last week, the Baldwin County Board of Education refused to reverse its decision requiring masks for students, faculty and staff, but it did backpedal on an earlier decision to withhold data about daily COVID-related absences.
Previously, the county said it would not publish the daily reports this year because the Centers for Disease Control implemented new guidance for quarantining after “close contacts,” but also, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) intended to publish the school data itself. ADPH recently reported its dashboard would not be updated until September, so Baldwin County began publishing its absence data Monday.
Prior to the first report, Tyler said the county had 1,200 students absent in the first 10 days of school, or about 4 percent of our school population, “for any number of COVID reasons.” The county emphasized that not all absences were attributed to positive tests. Last week ended with 44 students absent on Thursday and 24 absent Friday, but when the first daily report was released Monday, the county tallied 425 COVID-related absences. On Tuesday, the number fell back down to 235. Both days, 38 of the county’s 44 schools reported COVID-related absences, with higher numbers at Elberta Elementary, Daphne Middle, Silverhill Elementary and Belforest Elementary. On Tuesday, the hotspots were Daphne Middle, Foley Elementary and Daphne High School.
Tyler said the county’s COVID protocols worked last year, and reiterated his reason for requiring masks.
“Keeping our schools open is critical for our families and our communities,” he told the crowd at the public hearing last week. “When we started our opening at the end of July, we saw dramatic absences from COVID among our employees. I was very concerned about being able to staff our building because if we lose a significant amount of staff, we would be forced to close the schools and that would be devastating. We’re requiring masks out of an abundance of caution to keep our schools open … if masks provide a 1 percent reduction (in the transmission rate) I think it is helpful.”
Still, 15 speakers were allowed to make comments in opposition of the mask mandate. They were led by Demetrius Cox, a former Navy officer and scientist with three sons in the Baldwin County schools. He argued Baldwin County has not been a hotspot for cases or deaths, and the schools have been effective at stopping the spread without the use of masks by promoting hand washing and disinfecting.
“The COVID survival rate is 99.999 percent,” he said. “A child is more likely to be struck by a falling rock from outer space than to die from COVID, or even be hospitalized.”
Ultimately, the board voted to support Tyler’s mandate, but the issue will be revisited in early September. Meanwhile, the county encourages anyone with exposure to a positive diagnosis to report as absent.
Tyler said the results are evident.
“Considering we held our first football games of the season and the numbers seem to be falling, I am optimistic there is something more normal in the future,” he wrote. “Maybe it’s cautiously optimistic, so PLEASE do not let your guard down. Please continue to wear masks, social distance where possible and sanitize frequently.”
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