The Bibb County School System announced students and faculty will be required to wear masks this semester in an attempt to prevent the transmission of the novel Coronavirus, a decision that was met with staunch opposition from many parents.

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Although Superintendent Duane McGee's inbox has been inundated with ire, he assured parents, teachers, and faculty that the decision was not made lightly. On Sunday night, McGee shared the following letter, urging those within the school system to stop fighting one another and focus their efforts on fighting the highly contagious Delta variant.

Parents, Teachers, Students, and Friends:

Since the end of the last school year in May, and throughout most of the summer, it appeared to most of us that the COVID spread in our county and state – and across the country – had lessened to the point that we had maybe… finally… turned the corner on this virus and things would be back to normal.  Indeed, we held summer reading camps and summer school without requiring masks.  They were optional. Some teachers and students still chose to wear masks in school over the summer, but most did not. The COVID numbers were down significantly from where we were in December and January.  Fewer people were being hospitalized. Fewer people were dying. The vaccine that people were receiving seemed to be working.  It was working.  It does work.  It is working.  

The vaccine is working for those people who have chosen to receive it. Unfortunately, after the elderly and most at-risk persons were vaccinated in the winter and early spring, not that many younger and middle-aged persons chose to get the vaccine. Getting the vaccine is a personal choice. Our doctors and research scientists had hoped and expected that many more people would have taken advantage of the protection that the vaccine offers. This has not happened, so the virus has done what viruses do: They find hosts who have not already been infected or vaccinated and mutate into different strains. While it is still possible that people who have been vaccinated or previously infected could still be infected by the original virus or a strain of the virus, these persons generally have antibodies and may only experience mild symptoms. 

The decision made by the school board to require masks is strictly based on a desire and responsibility to ensure the health and safety of our children and employees. It is not an attempt to display authoritative or dictatorial control over parents, employees, or children.  

We currently have approximately 1,600 students who CAN NOT receive a vaccine.  They are under 12 years of age and have no other recourse than the efforts and protections we put into place to stem the rates of transmission. I have to say that it worked pretty well last year. But this new strain of the virus… Delta… has shown to be more aggressive with the population as a whole and much more prevalent in our children and teenagers. Children and teens are being hospitalized in much more alarming numbers than what we saw last year. 

Masks will not prevent your child from catching this virus. Yes, that is what I just said. I don’t think any doctors or infectious disease researchers have ever said that masks alone would prevent transmission. What masks WILL do is HELP prevent transmission. Along with other mitigation strategies - such as hand washing/sanitation/hygiene, social distancing to the greatest extent possible, having physically active lifestyles, and routine and specific custodial protocols… all of the things we know from last year – masks will HELP.  We are repeatedly urged by doctors and medical professionals and infectious disease experts IN OUR OWN AREA (Dr. Michael Saag, Dr. David Kimberlin, and Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo with the division of pediatric and infectious diseases at UAB; Dr. Scott Harris and Dr. Karen Landers with ADPH; and our own local physicians at Bibb Medical Center and Cahaba Medical Care) that requiring masks in our schools will HELP diminish transmission rates among our children… along with other mitigation strategies.  These are the experts the board members are listening to for advice and recommendations to keep our children as SAFE as possible and keep our schools OPEN. 

The board of education does not seek to usurp any particular parent’s authority. The board of education made a decision out of the desire to protect ALL of our students, and especially the 1,600 or more who cannot receive a vaccination at this time. There are vaccine trials for children under 12 currently working their way through development. That is encouraging. More Alabamians are now getting the vaccine. That is encouraging. While the Delta variant is aggressive in its spread, those who have been vaccinated and still suffer breakthrough infections are experiencing much milder symptoms and complications than the unvaccinated.  That is encouraging. 

That we are in the place we are today, just as school is beginning, with COVID case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths rocketing back up in only the last three weeks or so to levels last seen back in January and February is definitely a punch in the gut. We WERE told that we would not need a mask if vaccinated. And now we are told that Delta hits different. We thought just one month ago that COVID was probably behind us as far as schools and classrooms were concerned. But it is not over. That realization is utterly depressing to ALL of us. But we CAN NOT give up the fight against this virus. We can’t quit now. It is imperative that we fight back against this disease… not against each other. The fight – especially now – should be unified against this VIRUS. Not with each other. 

Most of the student absences that happened last year were due to quarantine. Most of the students in quarantine last year were not positive cases. They were close contacts. A LOT of close contacts. I think it is important for parents and students to know that the ADPH – while urging schools to require masks - has also changed the close contact/quarantine position to EXEMPT masked students from quarantine if they are 3 feet or more from a positive case. This position alone would have eliminated almost all of our close contact quarantines last year. “In the K-12 indoor classroom setting, the close contact definition EXCLUDES students who were 3 feet or more from an infected student if both students were engaged in the consistent and correct use of well-fitted masks.”  In addition to our recognition that students under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccinations, this change in procedure from the ADPH to potentially exempt masked students from quarantine should help us keep students in the classroom. This reason alone for mask requirement cannot be overstated. 

 It is obvious from social media chatter that many parents disagree. Some employees disagree. Students absolutely do not want to mask. In truth, it is a decision and place at which the board members really did not want to arrive. It is excruciatingly heartbreaking to realize that we are back in the throes of this virus that is now spreading like the wildfires out west. We all hate wearing masks. ALL OF US.  But we must take the measures that medical experts in the field of infectious disease so strongly recommend to keep our children as safe as possible while in the classroom. It is not an ideal situation for optimal teaching and learning. That is obvious. But it can make a big difference in student attendance so that teacher/student interaction CAN happen.  I think all of our teachers will tell you that it is preferable and more beneficial for the child to be in the classroom than learning virtually or remotely at home. 

We will strongly recommend that administrators and teachers allow students multiple opportunities to get outside for mask breaks. An additional 15-30 minutes outdoors (cumulative) taken two to three times per day can be allowed and encouraged, in addition to regular PE times and breakfast and lunch times. Missing 10-20 minutes per day of instructional time, while not ideal, is certainly preferable to missing 10 consecutive days (or more) due to close contact quarantine!  

We CAN do this! We cannot give up the fight against COVID. As depressing as this setback is, and it is EXTREMELY distressing… WE CAN NOT QUIT NOW!  It is unacceptable to adopt the “to each his own” attitude now… to settle for resignations of “if you get it, you get it.” With the outbreak currently happening, to take such point of view is completely unfair to our children who have no vaccine option.  As I’ve said, the fight is not with the board members, or with each other. The fight should be FOR those most vulnerable and AGAINST the spread of this virus. 

When could this end? I do not know. Hopefully sooner rather than later. The board members will come to that decision through careful consideration and advice from medical experts. As I’ve said, it is encouraging that vaccination numbers are increasing, which will definitely be significant in stemming the spread. Current reports are that the FDA is close to fully approving the vaccine. That should boost the confidence of those still on the fence. A vaccine for children is being developed. As shaken as we are at this time, I prefer to be hopeful and optimistic! 

This morning at church, our pastor’s sermon was on David and Goliath – probably one of the world’s best known stories… not just from the Bible, but in all of literature. The overarching moral of the story deals with the underdog facing insurmountable odds against a giant and yet coming out victorious. Theologically, the story reiterates David’s unwavering trust and faith in his God to protect him and defeat his enemy. Trust and faith are paramount in understanding the theological significance of this story. But what cannot be forgotten is that David did not face the Giant with faith and faith alone. He did have weapons! Although Goliath had nearly full body armor, a massive sword and javelin, and a shield, David’s only weapons were a sling and some stones. I’m sure that those weapons seemed insignificant to the Philistines and Israelites alike. But they were all David needed – along with trust, faith, and courage – to fell the Giant. Finally, it is also worth noting that he used the Giant’s own sword to cut off his head.  

Masks seem really insignificant. I’ve already told you that they will not solely prevent us from spreading this virus. Not the mask alone. Definitely not saying that the mask alone is all we need to defeat this giant. But coupled with the other mitigation strategies mentioned earlier, along with the vaccine, we have some weapons. David didn’t just throw the rock at Goliath; he used his sling. Those were his only weapons. He only needed one stone. 

But he had five in his pouch… in case any other strain of Philistine came at him. 

Parents, Teachers, Students, and Friends:

Infectious disease experts, top medical professionals in their fields, local physicians, and yes… even the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control are pleading with us to require masks for our students until this current wildfire outbreak can be brought under control. Why should we ignore their pleas? Is this really about parents’ rights? Or employee rights? Or student rights? 

Are we talking about individual rights… or civic responsibilities here? I’m asking for all of our students, but especially those 1,600 or more who have no other viable defense against this virus than the mitigation strategies that these same pediatricians that we’ve trusted for these last 5-18 years are imploring us to adopt. 

We CAN do this!  We cannot give up and quit trying and resign ourselves to a fate that we can possibly avoid!  Let’s listen to our pediatricians. Let’s listen to the world renowned infectious disease doctors at UAB.  Let’s listen to our hearts and not our heads. 

Let’s do what we know we CAN do to win the fight against this pandemic. 

And not fight with each other. 

Respectfully and humbly yours,

Duane McGee 

Superintendent, Bibb County Schools

McGee's letter can also be viewed via the Bibb County Schools Facebook page HERE.

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