The Alabama Department of Public Health will recommend that all unvaccinated and vaccinated students over the age of two, and all teachers and staff in K-12 schools wear masks.
The recommendations come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday made the same recommendations, citing new evidence of breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.
It will be up to local school systems to decide to follow that guidance, however. Gov Kay Ivey, through spokeswoman Gina Maiola, said Wednesday that she won’t be mandating masks.
“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,” Maiola said. “As the governor has said previously, the state of emergency has ended, and Alabama is moving forward.”
“We have been at this for months. We know what preventative measures we can take on our own and now have a safe and effective vaccine to beat this thing,” Maiola continued. “The governor believes that 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.”
Ivey lifted Alabama’s mask requirements in May when her “Safer at Home” order expired.
ADPH spokesman Ryan Easterling in a message to APR on Wednesday said the department was finalizing its school toolkit which will follow CDC guidance on masks in schools, which the CDC updated Tuesday.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters Tuesday that the change in mask recommendations comes after new data on the delta variant shows that viral loads carried by the vaccinated are as high as those carried by the unvaccinated, meaning the vaccinated can transmit the virus.
“In recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that that delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause COVID-19,” Walensky said, also noting, however, that the CDC believes vast majority of transmission is occurring in unvaccinated people and through unvaccinated people.
Easterling said the mask recommendations are due to the high levels of COVID-19 disease in Alabama.
“Guidelines are based upon scientific evidence and supported by expert groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. Schools can choose to follow guidelines or not,” Easterling said. “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.”
Alabama reported an increase of 2,726 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday, the largest daily increase since Feb. 4. The state’s seven-day average of new cases of 1,931 is an 815 percent increase from the average on July 1.
There were 1,181 hospitalized with coronavirus statewide on Wednesday, up 361 percent from July 1.
Despite the guidance from the CDC, and pending guidance from the ADPH, the Alabama Department of Education hasn’t yet required masks to be worn in schools.
“For the coming school year, face masks are not mandated in Alabama schools. That will remain the case unless there is specific guidance from the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) to suggest otherwise,” said department spokesman Michael Sibley in a message to APR on Wednesday. “However, local superintendents and school boards can determine for themselves if they want to enforce masking. That would be a local decision.”
Sibley said that although students and teachers aren’t required to get a COVID-19 vaccine “we strongly encourage everyone who can safely get the vaccine to do so.”
“Going forward, the Alabama State Department of Education will continue to work collaboratively with ADPH and make decisions based on their guidance,” Sibley said.
Some school systems have already announced universal mask mandates, including Birmingham City Schools, Huntsville City Schools, Bessemer City Schools and Opelika City Schools.
“Based on new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, Bessemer City Schools will require facial coverings for the first four weeks of school reopening,” wrote Bessemer superintendent Dr. Autumn Jeter in a letter to staff and parents. “Therefore, all students, employees, and visitors must wear masks — regardless of vaccination status.”