Masks in schools

File / The Outlook

Benjamin Russell High School health science students wear their masks during a patient simulation earlier this year. Alexander City Schools kept its indoor mask mandate through May 1 but as of Tuesday does anticipate bringing it back in August.

On Monday, Gov. Kay Ivey said she did not think Alabama public schools would need mask mandates, but that didn't stop all five Tallapoosa County Board of Education members from wearing face coverings at their meeting later that day.

Unlike Alexander City Schools, Tallapoosa County Schools kept its indoor mask mandate through the last day of school in May but had intended to drop when school returned in August. Given the county's four-fold increase in daily COVID-19 cases in the past month, however, Superintendent Ray Porter has held off on declaring one way or the other.

Alex City Schools, meanwhile, which ended its indoor mask requirement May 1, "highly encourages students, teachers and employees to wear masks when in close quarters; however, we do not foresee enforcing a mask mandate prior to the start of the school year," public relations specialist Jessica Sanford said Tuesday.

However, Sanford said the school district will continue to look to the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) and state and federal health authorities for guidance.

"We encourage all eligible personnel to receive the vaccine if possible," she said.

In the past two weeks, 117 Tallapoosa County residents tested positive for COVID-19, bringing its average growth rate to eight new cases per day, according to Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) data. Tallapoosa County is now seventh statewide for new cases per capita. The six counties with higher COVID-19 transmission rates are all in the southern part of the state.

Meanwhile, Alabama ranks bottommost in the nation for COVID-19 vaccinations with only 33.7% of its population fully vaccinated, as compared to 48.6% nationwide, according to CDC data. In Tallapoosa County, 33.5% of residents are fully vaccinated.

For 12- to 17-year-old students, for whom vaccination rates are even lower, the window to get the first vaccine dose is closing for those who want to be fully vaccinated by the start of the school year. Pediatrician Dr. Chanté Ruffin, who is also vice president of the Alexander City Board of Education, said her clinic has been encouraging eligible patients to get vaccinated, but as of Thursday, the uptake has been slow.

"We called multiple parents, we put it out on our Facebook, we advertised," she told The Outlook last week.

Ruffin's Heritage Pediatrics holds its vaccine clinic Friday mornings.

Neither school district can force their employees to get vaccinated, but Tallapoosa County and Alexander City schools were both highly accommodating last school year, setting up vaccine days at Lake Martin Community Hospital and Russell Medical Center for teachers to get vaccinated while students were in virtual learning.

Whatever the decision, Porter urged students and staff to make sure it's a medically informed one Monday.

"I want to encourage everybody to find a medical professional that they trust, a medical journal that they trust, and make up their minds to vaccinate or not to vaccinate based on that information and not see what they see on Facebook, or what they hear on these national news networks like Fox or CNN," he said. "They're selling airtime and they don't have (our) best interests at heart. So I would encourage everybody, do your own homework."