Athens City Schools Superintendent Beth Patton has reversed course on whether or not facial coverings should be required for students, faculty and staff when the 2021-2022 school year begins Wednesday.

Patton has maintained since the end of the previous school year that ACS' goal would be to return to more normal circumstances when students returned in August, including not requiring facial coverings.

However, a letter sent to families of ACS students Friday evening said based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Alabama Department of Public Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and local health officials, Patton will recommend the school board require anyone inside city school buildings over 2 years of age to wear facial coverings. The board meets Monday.

Passengers and drivers on school buses must also wear facial coverings at all times.

“As your superintendent, I am charged with making tough decisions,” Patton said. “This is certainly one of them. I know there are strong opinions on both sides, but in the end, we are responsible to do everything within our power to ensure the safety and well-being of our students — your children. We are not medical professionals, so out of an abundance of caution, it is imperative that we follow the recommendations of the experts.”

Patton said ACS will continue to monitor local COVID-19 data in the hopes that conditions improve and the mask requirement becomes optional in the “very near future.”

“Our desire is for all students who have been in our traditional schools to return to in-person learning,” Patton said. “Those who have a need for virtual learning can apply for Athens Renaissance School. Please read guidelines carefully, as virtual learning is a semester commitment (unless you choose virtual learning for the year).”

According to the letter, remote learning at the system's traditional schools will not be offered this year, though e-learning will be used for anyone needing to isolate or quarantine.

Per ACS, asymptomatic vaccinated close contacts do not need to quarantine but should monitor for symptoms and isolate if symptoms develop. Asymptomatic close contacts who have tested positive for and recovered from COVID-19 in the prior three months do not need to quarantine unless they develop symptoms. Unvaccinated individuals who are at a minimum of 3-foot distancing from positive cases and are wearing masks do not need to quarantine.

“I am praying that we can get past this surge in COVID-19 cases quickly and have a 'normal' school year,” Patton said. “No matter what, we will do everything within our power to educate every child while nurturing their mental and physical health. We take this calling very seriously.”

Visit www.acs-k12.org/domain/2198 to look at Athens City Schools' 2021-2022 COVID-19 mitigation plan.

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