Mask Fights Rip Georgia Schools as Hospitals Repeat Warnings

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Pro-mask demonstrators stage a protest at the Cobb County School Board Headquarters in Marietta, Ga.

ATLANTA (AP) — Fights over masks in schools continued to tear at Georgia communities on Thursday even as hospital leaders renewed warnings of shrinking capacity to handle a surge of COVID-19 cases.

More than 100 protesters gathered Thursday at the Cobb County school board headquarters in Marietta. Most of them were trying to push Georgia’s second-largest school district, with 110,000 students. to mandate masks.

The district, which has a sharp division on its school board, has stuck to its mask-optional policy, like the majority of other Georgia school districts, even as infections led the district to send the fifth grade home at one of its elementary schools recently.

Djenaba Pershay, who lives in Mableton, said her daughter, now in fifth grade, had attended remotely all last year. When she chose in the spring to send her back to school in person this year, Pershay said the 107,000-student Cobb County district was still requiring masks. It dropped that requirement shortly afterward.

“I’m here not just fighting for her,” Pershay said. “I’m fighting for all the kids.”

Beth Baird, who lives in Marietta, said her younger son has a terminal illness and his immune system is suppressed. She said she feels ignored by her school board member.

“The ones who are against the mask mandate are against listening,” Baird said.

But there were counterprotesters in Cobb on Thursday, holding signs saying “My body, my choice.” In Monroe County, between Atlanta and Macon, school board members voted 6-0 on Wednesday to roll back a mask mandate that had been in place for only 24 hours.

“It’s my child, it’s my choice,” Monroe County parent Samantha Knipper told WMAZ-TV. “I don’t want other people to make health decisions for my kid, so the board of education surely is not gonna make a decision for my child and his or her health.”

Parents in Gwinnett County who oppose that district’s mandate are threatening to sue, and The Savannah Morning News reported that U.S. Rep Buddy Carter sent out a fundraising email saying masks in schools are “a Big Government power grab” that are “suffocating our children.”

Meanwhile, the Fulton County district, which currently mandates masks for all its students, announced it would open a school for up to 500 students who wouldn’t have to wear masks. That’s a concession to parents and students angered over the masking order. The district also said it would open remote learning program for up to 300 students in grades K-2.

Statewide, mask mandates continue to grow in schools. At least 40 districts covering 770,000 students are requiring face coverings. That’s almost 45% of Georgia’s 1.7 million students. At least five districts have sent all students home, including Ben Hill County, which starts virtual instruction Friday. Others have stopped in-person teaching at individual schools. Crisp County High School in Cordele shifted to virtual instruction Thursday, while Clayton County sent students home from a second elementary school.

Georgia’s case count continues to rise, with the seven-day rolling average climbing above 5,800 on Thursday, the worst since Feb. 1. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals is also rising rapidly, exceeding 3,900 on Thursday even as many hospital executives warn they don’t have enough beds and staff. At least 30 hospitals statewide reported that they were turning patients away from emergency rooms and intensive care units on Thursday.

Leaders of Macon and Warner Robins hospitals held a joint news conference Thursday to implore people to change their behavior, one of a series statewide.

“We are not here today to debate the pros and cons and all the rhetoric that is out there,” The Telegraph of Macon reported that Houston Healthcare President Charles Briscoe said. “Today is about what we see in our local community. And what we see consistently is those individuals that are unvaccinated are at great risk of severe hospitalization and at great risk of death.”

University Hospital in Augusta put out a call for nurses to staff a COVID-19 unit it wants to reopen.

The seven-day average for the share of positive molecular tests kept climbing to 16.4% on Wednesday, far above the 5% average that experts say means there is enough testing to detect most virus cases. The pace of deaths is also rising, getting close to 22,000 statewide since the pandemic began.

The state has recorded almost 1.25 million infections.

Music Midtown, the annual music festival held in Atlanta, said Wednesday that it will require concertgoers to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have test results showing they are negative for the virus.

The festival is set for Sept. 18-19 in Piedmont Park.

In Augusta, the city-county proposed paying residents $100 to get vaccinated. DeKalb County offers a similar incentive.

“We’re in this pandemic and you’ve got so many people dying and so many people walking around who haven’t been vaccinated,” Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Williams told The Augusta Chronicle.

The city-county hopes to entice another 10,000 people using federal coronavirus aid. The full city-county commission must approve the plan.

Associated Press photographer Mike Stewart contributed from Marietta, Georgia.

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