Tallapoosa County Board of Education

Siri Hedreen / The Outlook

The Tallapoosa County Board of Education met for a special called meeting Tuesday to approve personnel items and a district-wide mask mandate, effective Aug. 4. Pictured above: Superintendent Ray Porter (left) and board members Martin Johnson, Michael Carter and Matilda Woodyard-Hamilton.

Tallapoosa County Schools teachers and students will return to class Aug. 20 under a new indoor mask mandate, effective Wednesday.

At the recommendation of Superintendent Ray Porter, the Tallapoosa County Board of Education unanimously voted to reinstate the requirement through Sept. 13.

"I have a tougher time telling you we shouldn't wear a mask than I do we should wear a mask," Porter told board members at the special called meeting Tuesday.

The decision comes one day after Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) published its "back-to-school toolkit" recommending masks indoors and 3-foot distancing. ADPH's guidelines echo that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Porter said his recommendation was also based on a federal mask requirement on all mass transit, including school buses, mandated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) through Sept. 13. The school board plans to reevaluate its mask mandate at that date.

Until then, Tallapoosa County Schools will model its COVID-19 policy on the guidance released by ADPH Monday, Porter said, including the recommendation that asymptotic students exposed to someone infected with COVID-19 do not have to quarantine for 10 days. The guidance saves school systems from having to grapple with virtual learning but comes with the caveat that mask mandates and 3-foot social distancing must be in place and enforced.

According to Porter, however, that factor was secondary in his decision to recommend masks.

"If masks don't 100% keep students from getting COVID and they're only 20% effective, I'll take the 20% to protect those students when parents send me their children," he said. "And so it truly is first safety, and secondly it is to help with face-to-face instruction."

While Gov. Kay Ivey has remained adamantly against a new statewide mask order, Tallapoosa County Schools is among several districts across Alabama to enact their own, including nearby Auburn, Opelika and Macon County school systems.

Alexander City Schools "highly recommends" both masks and COVID-19 vaccinations this coming school year but has yet to reinstate its mask requirement which expired in May.

As of Tuesday, 131 Tallapoosa County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past seven days as Alabama endures its fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Statewide, 1,694 Alabamians are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in what is now the second-highest peak.

Just over one third of Tallapoosa County residents are fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

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