COVINGTON, Ga. — A total of 80 students confirmed as infected with COVID-19 in the first week of the school year led Newton County's school superintendent to order a temporary mask mandate beginning this week for students and staff.
Beginning Monday, Aug. 9, the Newton County School System began requiring all students and staff to wear masks in school buildings and on school buses.
"We tried the mask-optional status but now must revert to requiring mask usage due to the considerable spike in cases,” Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said in a news release.
“No one likes wearing a mask. I understand that. But if parents and the community want our children to be able to attend school in person we must do this — at least for now," she said.
Some of Newton County's 19,000 students spent the 2020-21 school year learning virtually in response to the rise in COVID-19 cases — though more than half, 10,000, attended in-person, officials said.
Fuhrey said a "significant spike in student COVID-19 cases" among the system's 19,000 students prompted the action.
She said more than 200 students were sent home to quarantine in the first five days of the 2021-22 school year that began Aug. 2 — in addition to the 80 confirmed positive cases of student infection, Fuhrey said.
The numbers represent a significant increase from COVID numbers from the previous school year that ended in late May, Fuhrey said.
Weekly data reports from the second semester of the 2020-21 school year showed student cases averaged less than 20 — and often under 10 — confirmed cases per week, she said.
Fuhrey said information from Gwinnett-Newton-Rockdale Health Department Friday confirmed the increased infection rate among children in Newton County in recent weeks.
“Our primary concern is the health and safety of our students and staff,” Fuhrey said. “As such, we must move forward with a temporary mask mandate until such time that the number of positive cases decrease in our schools and community."
Reaction came swiftly on social media Friday.
At least one parent said he planned to tell his children not to wear a mask and urged others to encourage the same action from their children.
"I told my son not to wear his. And if most parents would do the same I don't think we would have to worry about this problem," the parent wrote on social media.
But another parent replied, "Excellent parenting. Don’t follow rules if you don’t like them."
"My 4-year-old wears a mask without complaining. The other kids can, too," another parent wrote.
Others said the district should have required masks beginning the first day of school.
Fuhrey said the decision to require masks "was not taken lightly.”
"I know this will not be a popular decision among many of our families, but it is the best course of action to protect our students and staff,” Fuhrey said. "It is my sincere hope we can move back to the mask-optional status once the numbers trend downward, and we see a reduction in the rate of transmission of COVID-19.”
Schools will have masks available for students and staff who do not have access to them during the time they are required, Fuhrey said.
Fuhrey said Friday the Department of Public Health identified Newton County as having a high rate of transmission of COVID-19 and the numbers were trending upward.
"Unfortunately, we’ve also been informed that less than 33% of the total population of Newton County has been vaccinated which contributes to the spread of the virus in our community," she said.
The Georgia Department of Public Health reported 328 new cases of COVID-19 in Newton County between July 19 and Aug. 6
The Seven-Day Moving Average — the average of the previous seven days' confirmed case counts — was 30.4 on Friday, Aug. 6, compared to 3.7 on July 6 in Newton County, the DPH reported.
Meanwhile, Newton County had 33% of eligible residents fully vaccinated and 38% with at least one dose of the vaccine on Friday, Aug. 6 — much lower than the statewide average of 41% fully vaccinated and 47% with one dose, according to information from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
When broken down by census tract, the rates of fully-vaccinated Newton County residents ranged from 81% in Oxford/northwest Covington and 62% in western Newton bordering Rockdale County, to 23% in west central Newton and 18% in southern Newton the DPH reported.