Superintendent Dr. Virgil Cole explains how the school system will loosen COVID-19 precautions when in-person classes resume on Wednesday, Aug. 4.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained the wrong date for the first day of school. School starts Aug. 2. The Morgan County Citizen regrets the error.

Morgan County Charter School System officials are hoping the upcoming school year can be a return to normalcy. When students return to the classroom on Aug. 2, they will be free from most of the protections in place last year to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, although school officials pledge to maintain some coronavirus-related precautions throughout the year.

“We are looking forward to getting back to normal,” said Superintendent Dr. Virgil Cole during Monday evening’s regular school board meeting.

While masks were never mandated at Morgan County Schools, they were strongly encouraged last year. This year, there won’t be a push for students to wear masks, although any student who wants to will be allowed to do so. Visitors will be allowed back into school buildings and students can resume field trips and other social activities. Cole said the school system will continue to conduct sanitizing and contract tracing, but that students who test positive for COVID-19 will be quarantined but those who come into close contact will not automatically have to quarantine.

“It will be up to the parents and can be an excused absence,” said Cole of students who come into close contact with anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus. 

While Morgan County school officials are eager to “get back to normal,” national health officials are calling for universal masking in schools across the country, as COVID cases spike and the dangerous Delta-variant spreads across unvaccinated populations.

On Monday, July 19, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a recommendation for masks in schools for everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccinations.

“The AAP believes that, at this point in the pandemic, given what we know about low rates of in-school transmission when proper prevention measures are used, together with the availability of effective vaccines for those age 12 years and up, that the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in all circumstances,” said a release from the AAP.

According to CNN, “Reasons for this recommendation include but are not limited to: a significant proportion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccination; masking protects those who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 and reduces transmission; and potential difficulty in monitoring or enforcing mask policies for those who are not vaccinated.”

“There are many children and others who cannot be vaccinated,” Dr. Sara Bode, chair-elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee, said Monday in a statement. “This is why it’s important to use every tool in our toolkit to safeguard children from COVID-19. Universal masking is one of those tools, and has been proven effective in protecting people against other respiratory diseases, as well. It’s also the most effective strategy to create consistent messages and expectations among students without the added burden of needing to monitor everyone’s vaccination status.”

However, Morgan County School officials believe the school system has a “low transmission rate” and will be able to safely return to normalcy.

“It doesn’t change our stance,” said Dr. Cole of the AAP recommendation. “Students can wear a mask if they’d like, but we won’t mandate it.”

However, Cole noted that school officials will be tracking COVID-19 cases and if spread passes a certain threshold, they will reconsider and encourage both mask-wearing and quarantining close-contacts when necessary.

“We see a lot of things returning to normal, but we are going to be mindful about what is going on in our schools and be transparent with our families about it,” said Cole.

According to the Morgan County School System, 3,375 students are enrolled for in-person classes beginning on Wednesday, Aug. 2. Just 18 students system-wide have opted for the virtual learning program done from home. Cole is hopeful that school system can maintain a low transmission rate once in-person classes resume.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we have more answers than we did last year,” said Cole. “It’s our teachers and our staff who have been flexible and willing to work together to accomplish what we have so far and we can be proud of that.”

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