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UPDATED: Jacksonville schools will require masks; Calhoun ‘recommends’ use

Masks will be required for nearly everyone — vaccinated and unvaccinated — in Jacksonville City schools from the start of classes Aug. 12 through Sept. 3, by a 5-0 vote of the city school board in a Thursday meeting.

In Calhoun County, students will have to wear masks on the bus. But inside school buildings, masks are “highly recommended” but will not be required. That decision also came Thursday, from county schools superintendent Donald Turner. 

“How can we require masks when they’re not required by the governor or anyone else?” Turner said.

School systems around the county are taking a last-minute look at their social distancing policies as the Delta variant of COVID-19 surges. Most K-12 students in the county will return to class next week.

Statewide, 1,848 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 Thursday, a nine-fold increase since the July 4 weekend. Alabama is quickly proving to be a hot spot for Delta, largely because of its low rate of vaccination. 

In Anniston on Thursday, 34 people were hospitalized with the virus, 32 of them at Regional Medical Center and two at sister hospital Stringfellow, according to Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist at the hospital. 

RMC sometimes held as many as 80 patients in multiple COVID wards over the winter, though all but one COVID ward was closed down earlier this year as the vaccine began to be widely distributed.

Magadia said the hospital’s emergency room is now functioning as a second COVID ward for RMC. There was no room at the hospital for more than 32 COVID patients Thursday. 

Four people died of COVID in a single 24-hour period earlier this week, doctors have said. 

Doctors have expressed growing worry that the resumption of class will cause outbreaks of the virus. Vaccines have yet to be approved for elementary-age kids, and a state law, passed earlier this year, prohibits schools and other public agencies from requiring vaccination for COVID-19. 

Anniston City Schools announced during the summer that masks will be required during their school year, which starts Monday.

Jacksonville’s school board on Thursday approved a mask mandate that would apply to everyone in the school system, vaccinated and unvaccinated, unless they have a doctor’s excuse. Kids won’t have to wear masks while outside, while eating, while engaging in strenuous activity in P.E. classes or while stationary and separated from others by at least six feet. 

Superintendent Mike Newell said most people in the school system had been looking forward to a return to normalcy. But in a series of teleconferences with state health and education officials, he said, he heard evidence that suggested to him that masks were necessary. Among other things, Newell said, he was alarmed to see that the number of daily new infections doubled over the course of two weeks in July. 

Newell said he hoped the Delta variant would subside over the course of several weeks, as it appears to have done in the United Kingdom. He said that’s one reason the current mask order is set to last only until Sept. 3.

“Hopefully this will move through the community quickly and we can move away from the mask,” he said. 

The move drew some opposition from a few local parents, who criticized the council for holding a vote before taking public comment, and who questioned the necessity of the mask rule. Local resident Adam Allen questioned the exceptions in the policy. 

“So you’re saying they cannot get the virus at lunchtime, or that they cannot get it at P.E.?” he said. He claimed the masks would give people a false sense of security about the virus, particularly given that masks aren’t worn by most people outside the school.

“When you go to Walmart, or you go out to eat, your kids are going to be exposed,” he said.

Board president Ed Canady said the school board can’t control what happens outside the school, but is responsible for the care of kids when they are in school.

“We’re the ones who are elected to make these decisions,” he said. 

Angela Morgan, a representative for the Alabama Education Association, told the crowd that she knew of two teachers in local school systems who’ve died of COVID-19. She said she knew of teachers with long-haul COVID symptoms who returned to work because they cared about kids — and she asked the audience to support the mask rule to protect teachers. 

“They need your help,” she said. “They need you to take a little time, and a little inconvenience just to help them. I know we are better than this.”

Some school systems are still considering possible policy changes in response to the rise of the delta variant. Piedmont City Schools Superintendent Mike Hayes, in an email to The Anniston Star, said Piedmont schools will make a policy decision early next week. 

Turner, of the Calhoun County system, said the county’s masks-on-buses decision will keep the school system in compliance with Alabama Department of Public Health policy, which requires masks on public transit.

On Thursday and in meetings last week, Turner said statewide policy would affect his own policy decision-making, largely because of the difficulty of convincing people to wear masks when they aren’t required elsewhere.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.