The Tuscaloosa City Schools Board of Education approved a universal mask mandate for faculty and students for the first month of the fall semester. The policy will be implemented from August 12 until September 10. Masks will be "highly recommended" for students and faculty thereafter.

The Board approved the universal masking per new guidelines from the Alabama Department of Public Health. Under federal mandate, students must wear masks on busses regardless of any mask-optional policy after September 10.

Additionally, the Board adopted a policy that if TCS employees are vaccinated and asymptomatic, they can remain at school teaching if they choose. Vaccinated teachers will be supported with a local leave policy for 10 days through September 30.

"Nothing is being taken away from educators, employees who are not vaccinated," Daria said. "But if you are vaccinated, you have a better chance of staying at school."

Under this policy, masks will be required regardless of vaccination status in all instances except for:

  • Outside activities including recess, athletics, and PE
  • When eating/drinking
  • Staff who are in their unoccupied class/office space
  • Students with documented medical concerns or as directed by an Individualize Education Plan

"We are starting back to school August 12, in-person instruction, five days a week. That is our goal, that is our North Star... We plan to get in school and stay in school," said TCS Superintendent Mike Daria.  "We are educators and we rely on agencies for guidance on how to operate schools during this pandemic... We have to consult [ADPH and CDC] for guidance."

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Daria said that his goal for TCS this year would be to open this fall semester with a mask-optional policy. He cited success over TCS's summer programs, but ultimately sided with the newest recommendations from the ADPH.

TCS had to quarantine 4,436 students and 666 staff due to COVID over the previous school year, equating to 33,000 days lost according to Daria.

"Even when we were in-person learning, we lost time for students being out because of quarantine and isolation," Daria said.  The new guidelines support - agree or disagree - a mask can prevent us from having to send students home... Anything we can do to get that number down is worth considering."

Ahead of the decision, multiple people spoke for and against the implementation of the policy. Several brought up the past school year and gave suggestions how to go forward after this policy expires.

"Universal masking, distancing, contact tracing, quarantine protocols all allowed for in-person learning to occur successfully. That was last year with a virus that had a much lower transmission rate," said Michael Pierce, a father of an incoming 2nd grade student. "With Delta, each person infects five to eight people - double the rate. And we're talking about making masks optional."

Wearing masks while indoors has now been recommended by both the ADPH and the Centers for Disease Control recently as the U.S. faces another surge in COVID-19 cases. However as of publishing, 92 out of 150 school districts are making masks optional going into the upcoming school year.

Last month, DCH reported eight inpatients with five in ICU. As of Tuesday evening, there are 115 inpatients. Later speakers cited frustrations with vaccine hesitancy among Alabamians leading to low vaccination rates, in essence contributing to the current spike in cases.

"You already had a plan that succeeded. My question would be why abandon success at this critical juncture," Pierce said.

Local doctors, physicians and pediatricians came forward later to speak more candidly about the state of their patients who are currently battling COVID-19, pleading with the board to prevent the Delta variant from spreading unchecked.

"It's important to follow science - not science that was made overnight or science that was made because someone wanted their opinion heard, but science that follows the numbers in large pools," said Dr. Keisha Lowther, a parent and local physician.

Mary Grace Lyon, another local parent, spoke in favor of keeping masks optional.

"In this room, there's not a state mandate that says we have to wear mask," Lyon said. "Why is there this sudden fear and rush to mask our K-12 children, who are by far the least likely to be infected?"

Lyon questioned the efficacy of masking in schools, considering that the general population in Tuscaloosa would also not be required to do so.

"What we don't want is a little 4 or 5 year old who has the sniffles to go visit grandma, and then grandma ends up with the Delta variant," Lowther said. "As a physician, I have seen us at the brink. We were at the brink last year, the mask mandate worked."

Daria alluded to this mandate and any future policies having room to change as needed. The extension of this policy will reappear on a board agenda before it expires in a month.

"While in many cases that flexibility creates an inconvenience... We have to be flexible on the circumstances and the that we have at the time... I certainly hope we can move to the optional part soon," Daria said. "We have to get in school... Let's get in school using all the factors we can, give us time to assess where we are, and figure out how to open school."

Which School Systems Require Face Masks in West Alabama?

Alabama COVID-19 Vaccine Breakdown (June 2021)

Each graphic shows how many people are vaccinated in all of Alabama's 67 counties, plus the percentage of vaccinated people versus that county's total population. This data was pulled from the Alabama Department of Public Health, county health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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