As the fall 2021 semester quickly approaches and positive cases of the highly contagious Delta variant continue to climb, many local parents have taken issue with Tuscaloosa area schools' lenience on mask policies.

The Alabama Department of Public Health issued its new Back-To-School Guidebook Monday, emphasizing mask-wearing and vaccinations for all returning faculty, staff and students; however,  several Tuscaloosa area school systems have not amended their current policies to reflect those recommendations.

Tuscaloosa County School System previously said it would be following the current ADPH guidelines and only institute a mask mandate if one were in place statewide.

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"At this time, TCSS continues to move forward as we did last year, operating under the guidance of any current Alabama COVID-19 public health (mask) order. In the event that another health order is issued, we would follow the guidance of that order," said TCSS Superintendent Keri Johnson in a July 30 update

TCSS has not made any public statement amending their previous guidelines at the time of publication.

A private Facebook group called TCSS Parents/Guardians for Masking recently announced plans to address to the TCSS Board of Education at their next meeting Monday, August 9, drafting a letter to read to the board.

"The plan to make masks option goes against the guidance of both the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics and the Alabama Department for Health," a letter to the TCSS School Board states. "We shouldn't ask our young kids and their parents to choose between going to school and staying healthy and safe. Young kids will be eligible for vaccines within the next few months."

The group intends to read their letter at Monday's TCSS Board of Education meeting.

"I have worked very hard in the past year and a half to keep my children healthy. We've changed our lifestyle to keep them healthy, and with this new variant we're hearing a lot more stories of kids being hospitalized. Not to mention the safety of the teachers," said Julie Woolsey, organizer of the TCSS Parents Facebook group. "If we don't do more than just sanitizing surfaces and keeping kids with symptoms home, it's never going to be a normal school year."

Woolsey said at this time, there is no item on the agenda to discuss a mask mandate. She also expressed concerns that the Board will have a closed-door meeting citing COVID safety, as they have done in the past, although at the time of publishing the meeting is is still open to the public.

"We will be there regardless," Woolsey said. "These Board members are not infectious disease experts, and I believe they should listen to the ones who are the experts"

What we want is not about politics or control. We don't love masks, we want our kids and teachers to be protected. We need to work together on this," Woolsey said.

"We need to stop messing with our kids' lives," said Amanda Lemmert, a parent of a rising kindergartner at Northport Elementary School.

One of Lemmert's main concerns is the lack of access kids below the age of 12 have to vaccines. She personally didn't qualify for the vaccine before Alabama lifted its statewide mask mandate, and she drove to Mississippi to obtain hers. Lemmert fears that these relaxed restrictions will open the floodgates, allowing COVID to spread in the community.

"Kids are still affected by it. They're getting sick and bringing it back home to their parents-- and they will be impacted a lot harder," Lemmert said. "[COVID] is going to take a lot longer to recover from than wearing a mask for eight hours a day."

At the same time, an online petition has launched urging Tuscaloosa City Schools to require masks for the next school year. LaMonica Little, the petition's organizer, said in a statement that the lack of school mask policies will only help COVID cases rise.

"Currently, the state of Alabama has one of the highest numbers of unvaccinated residents AND ranks amongst the highest of COVID-19 cases nationwide. Our local hospital has seen a surge in the number of COVID-19 patients and ICU beds are being filled at an alarming rate. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics are both recommending that masks be worn by the vaccinated and unvaccinated due to the upsurge in COVID-19 cases," Little said.

Tuscaloosa City Schools has made it optional for any and all faculty and students to wear masks for the upcoming school year. TCS Superintendent Mike Daria told parents in an open letter Monday that TCS would be reevaluating its policies based on the new information by the ADPH.

This isn't enough for parents like Little who feel their children's lives are quite literally in someone else's hands.

"The individuals signing this petition are asking that you help stop the spread of this virus and save lives by putting measurements in place such as a mask requirement to keep everyone safe as possible," Little wrote. "Please be considerate of the fact that the vaccine is not an option for students under the age of 12."

Both the Tuscaloosa City School System and the Tuscaloosa County School System have Board of Education Meetings scheduled for Monday, August 9th.

Classes begin August 12th.

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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