Mobile County Public Schools went against Health Department recommendation to mandate masks

Mobile County

MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — Mobile County Public Schools went against a recommendation by the Mobile County Health Department to require masks in schools, despite the recent surge in local COVID-19 cases.

Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard H. Eichold II sent a letter to school leaders on Monday, January 3, recommending masks be required.

“As Health Officer of Mobile County, Alabama and regardless of vaccine status, I recommend ALL Schools in Mobile County, Alabama require everyone older than two years of age to wear a face mask that covers the nose and mouth while on the school campus, excepting essential nutritional activities. This should remain in effect for the next three (3) weeks as we monitor the situation. These efforts will again help break the transmission of COVID,” Dr. Eichold wrote in the letter, which WKRG News 5 obtained.

The next day, MCPSS Superintendent Chresal Threadgill sent a message to parents recommending — but not requiring — the use of masks as students and staff returned from winter break.

“As you are aware, the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is currently highly active in our area. Therefore, to assist with combatting the virus in our schools, we are strongly recommending that our students and employees wear facemasks,” Superintendent Threadgill said in the message.

On Wednesday, Jan. 5, the day classes resumed, MCPSS reported 156 COVID-19 cases among students and staff. That’s out of more than 60,000 total students and staff, which amounts to less than 1% of the district.

Some Mobile County teachers reached out to WKRG News 5 and said they were upset about there not being a mask requirement.

“Although MCPSS is strongly recommending masks, very few students or faculty are wearing them. Students are exposed to hundreds of students in the hallways during class changes and many other students as they have several different classes each day. I wipe students’ desks at the end of each class, but I’m not sure that’s enough,” one teacher told us.

We asked MCPSS for comment on why the district went against Dr. Eichold’s recommendation. MCPSS provided this response:

Mobile County Public Schools is strongly recommending that students and employees wear facemasks.

Mr. Threadgill sent a letter to all MCPSS families and employees emphasizing the importance of wearing facemasks. He stressed that if we all work together, we can overcome this Omicron wave as we have made it through all of the other COVID-19 waves over the last two years. We are continuing to layer our protective strategies, which includes encouraging regular hand washing; sanitizing classrooms; maintaining social distancing as best as we can; asking parents to keep their children home if they are sick; limiting campus visitors; and identifying close contacts so they can be isolated per health department guidelines.

One thing that is different this semester is that vaccines have been available for our employees for almost an entire year. And vaccines are available for any student age 5 or older, providing an extra layer of protection.

As Mr. Threadgill stated in his letter, we will continue to evaluate the number of COVID-19 cases in our schools and will make changes as warranted.

Rena Philips, Director of Communication, Mobile County Public Schools

Dr. Eichold also sent out a recommendation to the public on Jan. 3 emphasizing the importance of wearing a mask.

“With this increased community transmission rate, MCHD recommends that anyone over the age of 2 — regardless of their own vaccine status — wear a mask in the public, maintain social distancing and frequently washing of hands for the next several weeks. Large gatherings should be avoided,” Dr. Eichold said.

Mobile County Public Schools isn’t alone in opting against a mask mandate. Baldwin County Public Schools and Gulf Shores City Schools both returned from winter break this week with masks remaining recommended but not required. Other local districts include the Saraland and Satsuma city school systems.

Chickasaw City Schools, on the other hand, returned to a mandatory mask policy until at least January 17. Catholic schools within the Archdiocese of Mobile have a mandatory mask policy through January 21. Conecuh County Schools is also requiring masks.

According to daily figures released by the Mobile County Health Department, there were 1,005 new COVID-19 cases reported in the county on Jan. 5. By comparison, just two weeks prior, on December 22, the number of new daily cases was considerably lower at 147.

“This thing is spreading like wildfire,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said earlier this week. “So we really need people to do the single most important thing they can do to protect themselves which is to be fully vaccinated and boosted.”

On Thursday, the state health department’s COVID-19 dashboard showed all Alabama counties remained in the “high risk” category for transmission, with 42.3 percent of tests coming back positive over the past seven days.

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