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Student urges superintendent to require masks in schools

A senior at South Forsyth High School emailed the superintendent asking for masks to mandated in the coming school year.

CUMMING, Ga. — It’s official. Students and staff in Forsyth County schools will not be required to wear masks when schools reopen next month. The controversial decision comes on the heels of other metro Atlanta school districts taking the opposite stances and implementing mask mandates to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

11Alive is Where Atlanta Speaks so we spoke to the teen.

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“It's probably the most debated issue in public education today, and understandably so because people have some very strong feelings on both sides of the issue,” Dr. Jeff Bearden, Forsyth County Schools Superintendent, said. “Last week, I had the opportunity to go to the White House. There was a conversation about ‘how do we safely reopen American schools,’ and one of the main reasons I wanted to attend that meeting - I wanted to hear directly from national health experts on how we do exactly that.”

RELATED: Forsyth County School Superintendent says 'it's critical' to get students back in classrooms

After hearing the reports and crunching the numbers, Bearden said he decided masks and face coverings should be expected in schools, but not required. Last week, he recommended the guidelines to the Forsyth County Board of Education, which unanimously approved the recommendations.

Upon learning of the decision, Katy Gates, a rising senior at South Forsyth High School, decided to take matters into her own hands.

Credit: South Forsyth High School

“I wrote him a very lengthy email detailing my stance on masks and why they work, and basically asking him to adopt that stance and mandate masks for our school year,” Gates said. “I think that he's trying to play both sides of the game, and in doing that, he's not taking a decisive stance, and he's really pleasing no one. I'm very unhappy with his response. I don't think he's showing the leadership that we really need.”

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Her email, which was also posted to social several social media sites, has now been seen by many people across the area. On Instagram alone, the post received more than 1,500 likes as of Wednesday afternoon.

“It was also posted to the neighborhood site Nextdoor which I'm not actually on, so I have no clue how far it's spread there,” Gates said. “But from what I heard, it got a lot of interest. I had friends telling me 'Katie, my parents in their group chat were talking about your letter in this neighborhood.' It was just everywhere.”

Credit: Katy Gates

She said she’s done her research and feels like it’s irresponsible to allow students into school buildings without masks.

“I think that absolutely they should be used and not only used but mandated because there's a plethora of evidence that details how well they work and how to stop the spread of infection,” Gates said.

“They're not invasive. They're only a minor inconvenience, and I think in instances like this when we're in a crisis, people should be willing to risk a minor inconvenience to mitigate community spread and mitigate the risk of other people. It's just loving your neighbor and keeping your community safe. It's not that hard.”

RELATED: Coronavirus under control in 8 weeks if everyone wears masks, CDC director says

Dr. Bearden said his decision to not require masks came after receiving feedback from the community and consulting public health officials.

“The reason I did not recommend we go as far as requiring masks is I've heard from parents and staff members who have asthma, who have allergies, who are claustrophobic, and are telling me that because of their medical condition, they are not able to wear a mask for a prolonged period of time or at all,” Bearden said.

“So I have to balance all of that when I make a recommendation. I think it's indisputable, based on what medical experts are saying, that all of us should wear a mask when we're in public and we cannot socially distance. Schools are very public places. Schools are typically very crowded public places, and so we absolutely expect students and staff to wear a mask, but we understand there are some that are unable to because they have a medical condition that would prohibit it.”

Gates said she will keep fighting for what she believes is right. Next week, she said she’ll be meeting with her own principal to discuss some ways to have more students wear masks inside South Forsyth High School.

"Obviously 100% mask use is ideal, but if we can get it up to 80%, the effectiveness goes up a lot. We're actually meeting about that next week, and I will be attending school whether or not masks are mandated, because I just feel the need to be there to work on that and work on getting people to wear masks,” Gates said.

“I'm very passionate about writing, I'm very passionate about contacting my representatives if there's an issue, so I just thought this might be a small thing I can do. And if it helps at all, that would be great. And if not, at least I tried.”

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