Following a recommendation from Germantown Municipal School District, the school board unanimously voted to remove the district's mask requirement, aligning it with the other five municipal school districts in contrast with Shelby County Schools.
The official policy is that masks are "highly recommended" at Germantown district schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all people mask in K-12 schools.
Germantown's school district has flopped back and forth on the requirement throughout the school year as local policies, state laws and federal orders have been issued on the matter. Board members cast their votes Wednesday evening wearing masks, as some attendees, based on the board meeting video, held signs that said "my child's face is not for sale for ESSER funds" — a reference to the acronym of federal pandemic relief funding for schools — and shirts that read "100% parental choice."
The district appears to honor one federal judge's order on the matter, whose December order blocking a new state law on masks allows school districts to make their own decisions to require them. But, like the other municipal school districts, it appears to be ignoring another federal order in an active lawsuit that gives the Shelby County Health Department authority to issue health protocols for schools.
The health department's current order requires masks in schools bound to follow the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Parents whose children attend those schools (covered by the ADA) who have concerns that the children are not masking as required may call the health department's hotline, 901-222-MASK or 6275, and our school support team will investigate and make recommendations to school authorities," Michelle Taylor, director of the Shelby County Health Department, said during a media briefing Thursday.
In November, when Germantown still had a mask mandate, the department said it was investigating school districts that weren't following the policy.
Germantown officials didn't immediately respond with information about their own legal interpretation of the order. The health department didn't immediately respond with information about the status of the investigations.
"In short, if any of the school districts have what we call ADA covered schools, then they should be requiring masks per the federal injunction," Taylor said, when asked about Germantown's decision.
Public schools, like Germantown and mask-optional municipal districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Lakeland and Millington, as well as some private schools, are bound by the ADA. (Collierville requires masks but only of staff, not students.)
Germantown board members Tuesday night convened and appeared to agree the consensus for removing the mask mandate was based in the district's data analyses, which in part emphasized that Germantown ZIP codes aren't the hotbeds for COVID-19 pediatric case rates they reportedly were prior to the holidays. The district said those rates, which were comparatively much higher as the board met on Dec. 31 to reissue its mask mandate, had declined.
Superintendent Jason Manuel said the district's case rates and growth in comparison to other districts with different masking policies didn't show a "statistical difference." That data was not immediately available in meeting documents online.
Data presented by the Shelby County Health Department from Jan. 12 showed there were somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 active pediatric cases per 100,000 people in the Germantown ZIP codes, among the lowest case rates compared to other ZIP codes but still higher than previous precedent. The health department does not regularly post these case rates online, but instead sometimes shares them during weekly press updates.
Between Jan. 13 and Jan. 19, the Germantown district reported 131 cases among students and 13 among staff. According to its data, these counts are among the highest ever reported in one week during the 2021-22 school year. As a comparison, during the county's delta-variant peak, the district reported 68 cases among students and one staff case between Aug. 20 and Aug. 26.
Active pediatric cases of COVID-19 in Shelby County are the highest they have been throughout the pandemic for the last few weeks of the omicron surge, which, though it has appeared to dip, is still producing the highest amount of cases ever seen by at least twice the number of previous peaks.
Total hospitalizations were at record levels last Thursday, the most recent data available. Le Bonheur Children's Hospital reported the highest number of kids with COVID-19 hospitalized Wednesday at a total of 37 compared to 33 during the delta peak.
In a press conference Thursday, the day after the Germantown vote, Taylor, the health department director, shared Jan. 8 data showing that compared to other metro areas in Tennessee, Shelby County had the highest 14-day case rate of COVID-19 among kids aged 5-18.
The cases among Germantown students and staff have impacted school operations but not significantly enough to apply to close schools, Manuel told board members. The substitute fill rates have been between 76% and 80%, with the remainder filled by other teachers or administrators, he said.
Board members Brian Curry and Angela Griffith discussed that Germantown has only recently believed to have the authority to issue mask mandates, pointing out that the Shelby County Health Department has been the authority on the matter previously.
Shelby County differs from many counties by having multiple public school districts within its boundaries, and also differs in making masking requirements of its public school districts, a decision Germantown board member Curry said led to Gov. Bill Lee's opt-out order, which, like the new state law banning school mask requirements, has been challenged in court by Germantown students.
"There was no intent to control or to be woke or anything of the sort, it couldn't be further from the truth. I think there was a genuine concern ... with the numbers," said Curry, acknowledging he didn't want Germantown students treated differently and that at the start of the year COVID-19 cases with omicron abounded in the community.
Board member Ryan Strain acknowledged some criticism to the board, such as a lack of public notice on its special called meeting Dec. 31, and said the board could have provided "even more" rationale for its decision then to require masks.
"Particularly since August of last year, I think all of us have been said to hold every political opinion under the sun, usually based on a mask policy that we were not even put in charge of," Strain said.
"I will tell you that I, personally, I know this board also is extremely in opposition to the idea of partisan school board members," Strain continued. "That's because we want the community to have the confidence that when a matter of high public interest, that I think unfortunately has great political undertones, is being considered and made that it's not being done on a partisan basis, that it's been done on a holistic review of all kinds of data. ... This is not a political decision."
Laura Testino covers education and children's issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Germantown schools drop mask mandate as COVID cases hit new highs