FORSYTH COUNTY — The second semester for Forsyth County Schools began the same way the school year started with parents struggling over their children’s education environment under the cloud of the persistent COVID-19 pandemic.
As more students are expected to return to in-person learning this semester, some parents are asking the district require face masks for everyone. Currently, staff is required to wear face coverings while in the presence of students, who are “expected” to wear masks, a district spokesperson noted.
“Currently, the Forsyth County Board of Education does not support a mask mandate for all students,” said Jennifer Caracciolo, director of communications. “We have full confidence in the systems and policies that are currently in place and will continue to evaluate the data daily to keep our school communities safe.”
A petition started by a Forsyth County parent had gathered more than 4,000 signatures by Jan. 8, asking Superintendent Jeff Bearden and the Forsyth School Board to “put the health of [the] students and teachers first by requiring face masks” for all.
Caracciolo said she understands the issue of face masks is a sensitive subject for every family, which is why the district offers options for learning. She said the expectation remains that staff and students wear a face mask, especially in all public areas where they are in close contact with others.
The petition was started by a parent whose children are learning virtually. It cited information from the CDC from July which concluded face masks were important in schools safely reopening.
Comments on the Forsyth Schools’ social media sites showed parents seemed equally passionate on the subject, with many parents praising the district’s decision to give parents the choice of how their children learn.
Equally vocal were parents who said the decision to not mandate face masks were keeping their kids home. One parent wrote she “had to choose virtual…due to the selfishness of others.”
Last August, Forsyth was the largest school system in the state to reopen classrooms for in-person learning. The majority of the district’s 51,000 students opted to return to face-to-face instruction last semester, and even more expected to return this semester.
The county had experienced relatively low COVID impacts through much of the fall, but saw a significant increase in cases, like much of the state, after the Thanksgiving break and through the winter break.
As of Jan. 6, the district reported it had 109 active student cases and 82 staff cases resulting in 131 students quarantined due to direct exposure over the previous two weeks. Caracciolo said the numbers, while rising, still represent a small percentage of the district.
“To put it into perspective, since school started in August, about 9 percent of our staff and 2.6 percent of our students have been diagnosed with COVID,” she said. “To flip that, it means about 91 percent of our staff and more than 97 percent of our students have not had the virus.”
Parents were asked to choose their children’s learning environment — either in person or virtually — in December and commit to that option. With COVID cases on the rise, some parents are questioning their choice.
Caracciolo said parents who wish to change between face-to-face and virtual or vice versa must contact their school principal or counselor.