After initially “strongly recommending” masks, students and staff members will now be required to wear face coverings in Oak Ridge Schools when physical distancing is not possible, Superintendent Bruce Borchers said Thursday.
A school re-opening plan published Monday, after families and staff members were surveyed, said masks would be strongly recommended, but not required, when students can’t stay six feet apart to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students in regular classroom settings probably can’t stay six feet apart, the plan said.
Parents objected. Many said the mask recommendation wasn’t enough. They said they would contact school administrators to ask for mandatory face masks.
On Thursday, Borchers said the change to mandatory masks was made after a review of the “current situation.”
The number of COVID-19 cases in Anderson County, which includes Oak Ridge, has increased significantly this month, even as the school system prepares to open July 29, less than three weeks from now. The county had 178 total cases on Thursday—a 70 percent increase since July 2—and the number of active cases more than doubled in eight days.
As the number of cases has surged in the region, people have set up social media groups where members have reported on mask use at local businesses and offices and called for mandatory masks, including in Oak Ridge and its schools.
On Thursday, Borchers said students and staff members who have a medical reason for not wearing a face covering should contact their schools’ principal. Those issues will be considered on a case-by-case basis, Borchers said.
“Our goal at the beginning of this school year is to provide students with the maximum amount possible of direct teacher instruction time while keeping in mind the state and local health departments COVID safety guidelines,” Borchers said. “We care deeply about our students and staff and know that the number one factor that impacts student learning is being engaged with a highly effective teacher providing instruction.”
Under the re-opening plan published Monday, students were already required to wear a face mask before they stepped onto a school bus, and they were required to continue wearing the mask until they had sufficient physical distance from other students who aren’t family members.
The school system said a majority of those who responded to the recent survey wanted to return to normal as much as possible with students participating in face-to-face instruction. Respondents also want common areas disinfected, social distancing practiced, temperature checks provided, and non-essential visits reduced.
The survey was conducted before the recent surge in cases in Anderson County. It’s not clear if the acceleration in the growth of new cases in the county might have affected the survey results.
Oak Ridge Schools is currently offering two options for students for the July 29 re-opening: 1) resume in-person learning, with contingency plans for remote learning in case of health emergencies, and 2) a full year of virtual online learning.