For now, masks optional when Auburn and Opelika students return to school

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AUBURN, Ala. (WRBL) – Back to school is less than a month away, and for Opelika and Auburn City Schools, the goal is to make this year as normal as possible for nearly 14,000 K-12 graders heading back into the classrooms across both cities.

Educators overwhelmingly agree that face-to-face learning with a teacher inside a classroom is best for children.

“Social, emotional, mental health, and social interactions in the classroom are vital. We are looking forward to that being the standard for this school year,” said Daniel Chesser, with Auburn City Schools.

Dr. Mark Neighbors, superintendent with Opelika City Schools, says moving forward with in-person learning and keeping kids safe during a pandemic can be challenging. The good news is, educators are practiced. They’ve experienced a full year of pandemic learning, whether in school or online, and know what works to keep kids safe. For example, handwashing is critical; sanitizing buildings, masking, and social distancing worked well last year. This year, both Auburn and Opelika City Schools are making masks optional but are following CDC guidelines and listening to local health experts.

“We did have a great year, and I think that has a lot to do with the community buying into all that we did to keep people safe, masks, and sanitizing. We will continue to follow the CDC guidelines and ADPH. The CDC has said vaccinated people do not need to mask, and there is not enough information to require it at this point. Now, we will remain attentive up until the start of school and into the school year, because as last year showed us, that can change at any time,” said Chesser.

Dr. Neighbors says families know what’s best for their kids. He has no intention of asking anyone if they have been vaccinated or making masks mandatory for only those who have not been vaccinated. For now, if you want to mask, you can. If you don’t, masks will not be required. However, plans can change, and parents are asked to be flexible.

“We think that’s important that a parent choose what’s best for their child. However, if we start to see the numbers turning and it looks like we have more community spread, we will require masks for everyone,” said Dr. Neighbors.

Both Opelika and Auburn schools were among the first in the state to open a vaccine clinic for employees in January, vaccinating nearly 220 Opelika school employees. As a result, Auburn City Schools boasts a high percentage of vaccinated employees.

“We have over 70-percent of our employees are vaccinated, and we encourage people to be vaccinated if they are comfortable with that,” said Chesser.

This year will look a bit different in terms of communicating with parents regarding potential classroom exposures. This year, ADPH will notify parents regarding contact tracing and quarantining, not schools.

As for virtual learning, that is no longer an option like during the last school year for parents. Pre-pandemic virtual options remain for high school students, but in-person learning is the standard for younger students. There is an option for you to un-enroll your child from a local school district and put them in virtual school with a company if you feel more comfortable. Your central office can provide you with more information on how to make that switch if you desire.

Meanwhile, with vaccines not approved for emergency use for 12 and younger, and the highly contagious Delta variant, health experts say cases will pop up in school, but to what degree remains unknown. The good news is many school districts now know how to manage learning during a pandemic. There are plenty of masks available, hand sanitizer along with teachers, lunchroom leaders, administrators, and bus drivers who are dedicated to making sure your kids are learning and growing in a safe environment as possible. Parents and guardians are encouraged to support and remain the first line of defense towards preventing school spread. If your child is sick, please keep them home.

“Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to monitoring illness and spread, and we will continue to push that message,” said Chesser.

If you have any questions or concerns, parents or guardians are urged to reach out to your central office.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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