Six-year-old Audrey Gard will go to first grade wearing a mask next week. It’s a precaution that her mother believes will help minimize the risk of contracting coronavirus.

But Gwinnett County’s school district north of Atlanta is making masks optional for now, and Sara Holton Gard fears her family may be trapped in the middle.

“I am confident that she will wear a mask to school,” says Holton Gard of her daughter. “But I don’t trust the rest of the kids will. And that makes me very nervous …

“I’m worried that she’ll come to school, come home one day and say no one is wearing their masks and I’ll say then I’ll have to take you out of school.”

That would mean that, like last year, Holton Gard’s husband would have to retire from work to get back to school, a situation she described as “untenable”.

The parenting choice, albeit with a “strong recommendation” for Gwinnett masks, is one of a patchwork of school mask policies that are emerging across the country that confuse and upset families and employees ahead of the school year.

The district believes its approach “is the best way to handle things at this special time,” said Bernard Watson, director of community and media relations for Gwinnett County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district.

“We understand that people are concerned about this virus and (it) has caused tremendous harm and pain in this country over the past few years,” he said. “So again we encourage everyone who is eligible for the vaccine to get vaccinated. And we encourage people to wear masks. We strongly recommend that people wear masks when they enter our buildings. ”

Holton Gard appreciates this recommendation, but believes it does not go far enough and will cause problems in the school.

“I think it leaves so much to our teachers, who are already trying to manage our 25- and 30-student classrooms, and ‘strongly encouraged’ is not a rule,” she says. “So give students a rule so teachers can enforce a rule. If the rule is that everyone wears a mask, I would be delighted, it would be easier for me to send my child to personal school, and it would be in line with public health guidelines. ”

The debate over how schools should handle Covid-19 protocols has been a contentious issue in Gwinnett County and across the country. School districts, parents, health departments and government officials are wrestling over how to safely get students back to classrooms at a time when the Delta variant is causing a spike in cases across the country and younger students are still unable to be vaccinated.

Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County Schools, south of Gwinnett, have adopted a different tactic. Masks are compulsory for students.

This gradual approach was frustrating for parents across Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp declined to issue state guidelines but signed an executive order preventing schools from using the state’s public health emergency as a reason for making decisions.


DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris says her goal is to make sure everyone is safe when the kids return to school.

“We are doing (a masking) out of the utmost caution to ensure that all of our children and staff are safe,” said Cheryl Watson-Harris, superintendent of DeKalb County Schools. “We know that there are many divisions, that there are some people who want masks, people who don’t want masks. But my job as the CEO or Headmistress of our school district is to make sure that I break down as many barriers as possible so that our teachers feel safe, our families feel safe, and most importantly, our children are ready to go back to school. ”

Schools in the country’s three largest school districts – New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago – will require masking requirements at the start of the school year this fall. But others, like Houston, Texas, and Miami-Dade Counties and Hillsborough Counties in Florida, are among those making masks optional for students.

Opponents against mask mandates have led to noisy school committee meetings in Virginia Beach, Virginia and Barrington, Illinois.

Virginia Beach parents argued to school officials last week that there should be no mask requirement as data on children is relatively safe from severe Covid-19 and masks are no longer required in most other indoor spaces in the state.

“Masks are voluntary almost everywhere where our children play, where they live, where their parents work, it is optional. And yet we still demand that they be masked in our school buildings? ”Said Mother Lori Sharp.

The meeting was interrupted at some point because the debate had become so heated. School board members said they were following instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Health Commissioner when they decided to prescribe masks.

At the end of the more than four-hour session, Virginia Beach School Board voted against a motion that would make wearing masks in school optional for the upcoming school year. The board voted 6-4 against the efforts and upheld the mask requirement for the district’s 63,000 students and more than 4,000 teachers in September. But that can change before the school reopens.

In Barrington, Illinois, children were among the speakers who asked not to wear masks. Others at the meeting wanted the school to follow guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which last week recommended universal masking in schools for anyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC recently updated their school policy to say that anyone 2 years and older who is not fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors.

This meeting ended without a decision on mask policy.

Dekalb County’s superintendent, Watson-Harris, said she understands the different views on masks and that administrators are doing their best to come up with solutions that put safety first but take into account many different views.

“I’ve heard from some parents that they feel uncomfortable when their child wears a mask all day. They don’t think there is any science to back the decision, ”she said. “But that’s why we work in mask breaks. At times we work to ensure that children go outside as much as possible and are socially distant in order to take off their masks. We try to take all of these things into account. But that’s the primary pushback that they just don’t believe there is any science to back the decision to go for mandatory masks. They think the children are uncomfortable and then they worry about it. ”

The mask requirement is not the only point of contention in schools across the country. The question of testing guidelines, how prevalent it is in the community could cause a school to close, and guidelines on how schools quarantine children or classmates when positive cases have become another point of contention.

The children returned last week to Chandler Unified Schools, the second largest school district in Arizona. According to a spokesman for the district, the first day went “extremely well”.

“Our students and staff have minutes,” said Terry Locke, director of community relations for the district. “Last year was so challenging because it was so new to us.”

But the district’s protocols are still changing. Chandler Unified updated its quarantine policy on Monday to make quarantine optional for students with known exposure to Covid-19.

The school district said the changes were directly related to an edict from Governor Doug Ducey’s office last week urging two other school districts to withdraw their policy of quarantining unvaccinated students if they were exposed to Covid as it did violate state law. These schools said through a lawyer that they disagreed with the governor. The problem has yet to be resolved.

Masks are optional for the Chandler Unified for now, but that may change depending on local transmission levels in Maricopa County. The district also said it would “maintain increased awareness of student and staff behavior regarding mask bullying.”

Most schools have announced that they will continue to evaluate transmission rates and prevalence in the community, and the situation will remain fluid throughout the year.

Schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia offered full personal schooling for most of the past year and required masks inside.


Schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia offered full personal schooling for most of the past year and required masks inside.

In first year Audrey’s Gwinnett County School District, it’s already a change from last year when students returning to personal school all had to mask themselves.

Audrey’s mom says she understands the anger of parents who disagree with her, especially after a frustrating year for families juggling school from home.

“But I have to say, public health says anyone who is not vaccinated must wear a mask all the time in public,” says Holton Gard.

She says when her family made the decision to opt for face-to-face learning in April, they felt good about falling Covid-19 levels and hoped the majority of eligible Georgians would be vaccinated.

According to the Georgia Department of Health, only 40% of Georgia residents have been fully vaccinated. Holton Gard is concerned about the surge in Delta variant falls.

And she’s upset with her school board and her decision not to mandate masks. But she will do her best to help her daughter Audrey get into first grade

“I am very frustrated. I have no more patience now, ”she says. “But as a parent I have to put on a brave face, convince my children that we are doing this and that we are all in it together. But inside, I’m frustrated. I am angry.”