Concerned parents addressed the Tuscaloosa County School System Board of Education Monday night, pleading for them to make a decision on whether to mandate the use of masks in schools for the 2021-22 academic year.

The board met for its regular session at the TCSS central office at 5 p.m. Monday. About 20 parents and community members attended the meeting as well, carrying signs advocating for and against a mask mandate.

After approving a bevy of financial, administrative and human resources items, the floor was opened to three parents who requested to speak.

THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY WANTS MASKS

First to the podium was Dr. Julie Woosley, a clinical psychologist who presented the board with a petition for them to mandate masks during the 2021-22 academic year. The petition was signed by Woosley, along with 80 other local medical professionals (the entire transcript of the petition can be found below).

"[The signees] are recommending a mandated mask policy for the first nine weeks of the school year," Woosley said to the board. "That provides some time to get through the surge that's going on right now."

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The petition states that the COVID-19 vaccine is doing its job in preventing those who've gotten it from getting sick, but "low vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy are driving this alarming upsurge in cases." The delta variant of COVID-19 has also proven to be nearly doubly contagious as the original strain, and more children and teenagers are getting sick from this variant than other strains before it.

"As you may have seen in other areas of the country that do not have mask mandates and substantial protections in place, there have been high numbers of children getting sick, high numbers of hospitalizations among children, and schools are shutting down," Woosley said. "Schools are going virtual, and I think that all of us here could agree that is not something that we want."

'OUR CHOICES MATTER'

Jennifer McAteer is a wedding photographer and mother of three county school students. She addressed the board after Woosley, urging the system to refrain from creating any new mask mandates because she believes it infringes on children's personal freedoms.

"Everybody should have their own choice," McAteer said. "If people want to put a mask on their face, that's fine. Nobody's judging you if you want to put a mask on your face; that's absolutely OK."

Savannah Bullard, Townsquare Media

McAteer acknowledged that she does not believe COVID-19 is fake, recounting her family's struggles with the virus during the year-and-a-half pandemic. Her biggest concern for her children is their ability to choose whether they want to wear a mask, which she believes they should be allowed to do.

"Our choices matter, and when we start taking away small choices, it's then that we can start taking away the big choices," McAteer said to the board. "And this only gets bigger from there. So small choices matter. And if I don't want to send my babies to school in masks, that choice matters."

'A DERELICTION OF DUTY'

Following McAteer was Matt Reynolds, an assistant professor in the University of Alabama's Department of Theatre and Dance and father of two TCSS students. He asserted that mask mandates are not a matter of personal, political or religious ideologies, but a simple solution to preventing the continuation of an already serious pandemic.

"Your rights end at the end of your body – right where the mask goes," Reynolds said to the board. "Masks don't work on people who are sick. That's not how masks work – we've been over this for the last year and a half. They protect the other people, not yourself; hence why everyone needs to be masked."

Savannah Bullard, Townsquare Media

Reynolds added that children do not have rights in the classroom, so arguing for the right to choose whether to wear a mask should be moot. A mask mandate would operate similarly to how dress codes work and do not infringe on any of the rights students are allowed in the classroom.

"Please do your duty, your job, and protect our children, because this has nothing to do with the rights of children. [They] don't have rights anyway because they're children," Reynolds said. "It is a dereliction of duty of this board to have not put something as significant as a pandemic on its agenda."

WHAT'S NEXT?

Gov. Kay Ivey has declared that mask mandates will be up to individual school systems to decide. The Tuscaloosa County School System previously said it will follow the current ADPH guidelines but only institute a mask mandate if one is implemented by the state.

The board did not indicate when or whether they will change their minds after hearing from the evening's speakers.

The Tuscaloosa Thread reported Monday that the DCH Health System is treating 105 patients for COVID-19, 27 of whom are in the Intensive Care Unit. Seven patients at DCH are currently on a ventilator.

This is the first time DCH has treated over 100 COVID patients since the previous pandemic peak in January.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends the following:

"Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."

READ MORE: CDC Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools

The Alabama Department of Public Health issued its own recommendations for the 2021-22 academic year, closely following and echoing the CDC's guidance.

READ MORE: ADPH's Back to School Guidance

Stay connected to The Tuscaloosa Thread for more information as it becomes available.

READ THE FULL PETITION HERE

Below is a transcript of Woosley's petition, which was delivered to each board member at the Monday meeting:

Dear Dr. Keri Johnson and Esteemed Members of the Tuscaloosa County School Board:

On August 12, more than 19,000 students and 2,300 faculty, staff, and administration of the Tuscaloosa County School System will return to their respective facilities to begin the 2021-2022 school year. The purpose of this letter is to request that the Tuscaloosa County Board of Education implement a mask requirement for its students and personnel, as recommended by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and Center for Disease Control (CDC), to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As members of the medical community, we understand how challenging it has been to navigate this past year, and the remarkable talents of teachers and administration do not go unnoticed. We, too, have encountered numerous challenges in combatting this pandemic, and we know it will take a unified effort to end it. As cases are on the rise, we want to convey how critical this exigency is in our community. On August 3, DCH Health System reported a record high of 90 inpatients being treated for COVID-19, with 23 of those individuals receiving treatment in the intensive care unit. The system has not reported numbers this high since early February. Additionally, the ADPH reported a testing positivity rate of 19.8% for Tuscaloosa on August 4 – one of the highest rates of infection in Alabama.

While the COVID-19 vaccine initially proved to be effective in preventing community spread, low vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy are driving this alarming upsurge in cases. In addition, the increase is fueled by the COVID-19 Delta variant, which has become a grave concern due to its highly infectious nature and ability to cause severe illness among young children and teens.

Despite the contention and division they have caused, the science is clear: masks work. Until the Food and Drug Administration releases the vaccine for children and young teens, we urgently call on you – our elected leaders – to ensure the safety of one of our most vulnerable populations by implementing a mask mandate for the beginning of the school year. The spread of the Delta variant, coupled with the impending flu season, has the potential for great disruption to the small amount of normalcy we have reclaimed since the onset of this pandemic. We ask that you heed our warnings and join the numerous school districts around the state who have already issued similar mandates. Ultimately, the well-being of our children is on your shoulders. Please do what’s right.

Signed,

The Medical Community of Tuscaloosa

Justin Bevel, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

Erica Day-Bevel, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

Charles Abney, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

James Byrd, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

Elizabeth Marshall, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

Amanda Stevens, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

Malcolm Hendricks, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

Jahana Hill, M.D., Pinnacle Physician Group

Wendy Benton, C.R.N.P., Pinnacle Physician Group

Ashley Winns, D.N.P., C.R.N.P., Pinnacle Physician Group

Hillary Gant, C.R.N.P., Pinnacle Physician Group

Lauren Brock, C.R.N.P., Pinnacle Physician Group

Albert White, M.D., Infectious Disease Consultant, Medical Associates of West Alabama

Keisha Lowther, M.D., Generations Primary Care

Jaime Lowther, M.D., Generations Primary Care

Jennifer Burdette, M.D., Taylorville Family Medicine

Michelle Parchman, M.D., Tuscaloosa Pediatrics

Denise Brown, M.D., Tuscaloosa Pediatrics

Megan McGiffert, M.D., Tuscaloosa Pediatrics

Julie Vaughan, M.D., Tuscaloosa Pediatrics

Sudha Bennuri, M.D., Bama Pediatrics

Bindu Bennuri, M.D., Bama Pediatrics

Lena Bedri, M.D., Crimson Pediatrics

Dr. Bruce Petitt, M.D., West Alabama Pediatrics

Dr. Elizabeth Cockrum, M.D., West Alabama Pediatrics

Roshni Seth, M.D., West Alabama Pediatrics

Kaicee Richardson, M.D., West Alabama Pediatrics

Katherine Zieman, C.R.N.P., West Alabama Pediatrics

Marjorie Eiland, C.R.N.P., West Alabama Pediatrics

Gregory Broughton, M.D., Tuscaloosa Urology Center

Anne Scott, M.D., Tuscaloosa Urology Center

Pamela Hughes, M.D., DCH Oncology

Joanne Myers, M.D., DCH Health System

Elwin Crawford, M.D., DCH Health System

Timothy Prestley, M.D., Novus Neurology

Steven Coppock, M.D., DCH Health System

Vernon Scott, M.D., Alabama Multi-Specialty Group, P.C.

Verquita Scott-Conley, M.D., Alabama Multi-Specialty Group, P.C.

Jessica Smalley, C.R.N.P., Alabama Multi-Specialty Group, P.C.

Kristen Williams, C.R.N.P, Alabama Multi-Specialty Group, P.C.

Amna Handley, P.M.-F.N.P., R.N., C.I.C.

Devin Handley, M.D.

Amit Shah, M.D., Cardiology Consultants

Ramesh Peramsetty, M.D., Crimson Urgent Care

Jimmy Tu, M.D., DCH Health System

Jeanne Lipscomb, M.D., Comprehensive Sleep and Breathing Disorders Center, P.C.

Narayan Krishnamurthy, M.D., Comprehensive Sleep and Breathing Disorders Center, P.C.

Donal Conway, M.D., DCH Health System

Douglas Woodward, M.D., Middle Creek Medical Center

Angela Woodward, M.D.

Amy Nelson, C.R.N.P., Middle Creek Medical Center

Kevin Katona, M.D., Riverside Family Medicine

Nancy Tactuk, M.D., Crimson Internal Medicine

John Dubay, M.D., Oncology Associates of West Alabama

Keith Debell, M.D., DCH Health System

Blake Lovely, M.D., DCH Health System

Leigh Gunter, C.R.N.P., Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center

Alisa Johnson, M.D., DCH Health System

James Brian Wilhite, M.D., North River Internal Medicine

David Nelson, D.M.D, University General Dentistry

Julia Lett Boothe, M.D., Pickens County Primary Care

Chelsea Wallace, M.D., Plastic Surgery of Tuscaloosa

Payden Wallace, M.D., Surgical Specialists of Alabama

Lawrence Lacy, M.D., Psychiatry

Remona Peterson, M.D., We Care Family Practice

Tracy George, R.N.

Kristy Satcher, R.D., L.D.N., C.H.E.S.

Julie Woosley, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

Kelly Miller, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (L.M.F.T.)

Erin Holloway, M.S., L.M.F.T., Firm Therapy

Erin Hinz, L.P.C.-S., Lifeline Solutions

Colette Peters, L.I.C.S.W., P.I.P, Lifeline Solutions

Thad Ulzen, M.D., Psychiatrist

Samuel J. Popkin, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

Vincent A. Intoccia, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist

Doreen Davis, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

Audrey Austin, M.P.H, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

David MacVicar, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

Tony Cross, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

Adriana Yon, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., Clinical Neuropsychologist

Ellery Curtis, PharmD, Clinical Pharmacy Specialist

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