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Health officials urge masks in schools, Ivey says no mandate

July 29, 2021 GMT

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama public health officials are recommending that all students and teachers wear masks this school year because of a surge in COVID-19 cases, but a spokeswoman said Gov. Kay Ivey has been “crystal clear” that there will be no state mandates to do so.

The Alabama Department of Public Health will recommend universal masking in schools due to the high levels of COVID-19 in the state, department spokesperson Ryan Easterling said. The recommendation will be included in the “school toolkit” suggesting guidelines to mitigate pandemic risk.

“Schools can choose to follow guidelines or not. However, these guidelines represent the best evidence available to protect students, teachers, and staff by reducing the transmission of COVID-19, along with disease, potential hospitalization, and risk of death from this virus,” Easterling wrote in an email.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status. The recommendation comes amid a sharp uptick in COVID-19 fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.

Ivey will not issue statewide requirement on masks, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

“The American people, Governor Ivey included, are understandably frustrated with the changing goal post and whiplash over the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance. Governor Ivey has been crystal clear on her position that there will be no mandates from the state level,” spokesperson Gina Maiola said.

Maiola said the governor believes the “current circumstances do not warrant a blanket one size fits all approach.”

“Generally, it is school officials who are in charge of making decisions that work best for their school. The governor trusts these school officials to make the best decision possible using all available information,” Maiola said.

Alabama has seen a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Alabama has more than tripled over the past two weeks from 559.57 new cases per day on July 12 to 1,775.14 new cases per day on July 26.

The number of people in state hospitals on Wednesday rose to 1,181, the most the state has seen since winter when there were 3,000 people hospitalized at the pandemic’s peak.

Some Alabama school systems have already announced they will require students and teachers to wear face masks indoors following new federal guidelines to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, Bessemer and Opelika school systems are among those that have said that masks will be required indoors.

“Due to the upward trend of COVID transmission and the current local positivity rate, this decision is in the best interest of our students and staff at this time,” Opelika City Schools Superintendent Mark Neighbors said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Education said Tuesday that mask mandates will be a local decision unless they get specific new guidance from state health officials.

“However, local superintendents and school boards can determine for themselves if they want to enforce masking. That would be a local decision,” spokesperson Michael Sibley said Tuesday.

State Health Officer Scott Harris said earlier this week that the state was waiting for the new CDC guidance before issuing recommendations to the school systems.

“The issue of masks in schools is like everything else — highly controversial. They really shouldn’t be,” Harris said.

Ivey in an opinion piece first published Tuesday by The Washington Post, Ivey promoted vaccinations over masks and distance learning.

“Here is the truth: Closing businesses will not defeat covid-19. Wearing masks will not defeat covid-19. And keeping our students from in-classroom learning will not defeat covid-19,” Ivey wrote.