September 23, 2021

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Georgia Parents File Complaint With Education Department Over Schools’ Opt-Out Mask Policy

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Parents in a Georgia school district have filed a complaint with the Department of Education over their schools’ policy allowing students to opt out of wearing a mask in school, even as COVID-19 cases mount across the district.

In a complaint filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, a Dalton Public Schools parent who’s also an attorney representing other parents in the district requested an investigation into the Dalton Public Schools’ “mismanagement and dereliction of duties to protect the health of all students.” 

The current school district policy is that masks are required in school buildings but that parents can “opt out” of making their children wear them ― without providing any reason. A simple form to opt out is available online and does not require parents to supply any justification for why the student won’t be wearing a mask indoors. 

“The blanket mask mandate opt-out… is both irresponsible and detrimental to the students actively protecting their own health and the well-being of other students and staff,” says the complaint, a copy of which was provided to HuffPost.  

In the first three weeks since school started Aug. 9, there have been more than 200 reported cases of COVID-19 among students and dozens more among staff across the district — with cases mounting week over week.

The school district’s superintendent and board of education did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. 

“More students and staff will become infected and suffer if action is not taken,” the complaint says. 

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Michael Caneege, a teacher in Wrightsville, Georgia, teaches anatomy online on Aug. 20, a few weeks into the new school year, after his district halted in-person learning amid a surge in coronavirus infections. With 40% of students in quarantine or isolation, his school district shifted to online instruction until at least Sept. 13. 

The Dalton public school district, with more than 7,600 students and 900 teachers and staff, is 70% Latinx and 20% white. Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, being about three times as likely to be hospitalized with the virus as white people and twice as likely to die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Biden administration’s Education Department announced Monday that it was investigating five Republican-led states that have barred schools from requiring masks — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — saying universal mask bans could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions. 

The CDC’s guidance for schools recommends universal indoor mask wearing for all students, teachers and staff in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. 

As the highly contagious delta variant spreads, cases have risen dramatically across the country in recent months. Georgia is currently seeing an average of more than 9,000 reported COVID-19 cases per day — up from 300 daily cases in early July. 

Meanwhile, Georgia ranks among the bottom six states by vaccination rate, with only 41% of its population fully vaccinated.

“Please act, please do something now, today, this week, and without delay to protect the health of our students,” says the complaint.

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