A group of over 700 residents, doctors and researchers with children in the Vestavia Hills school system are urging the city’s Board of Education to fully adopt and implement the health guidelines recommended by the Alabama Department of Public Health’s “Back to School Guidance 2021-2022,” which include universal masking, and further calling for increased transparency into the board’s decision-making process.
The Vestavia school system is one of the few school systems in the surrounding area that has not mandated universal masking for students returning to school, adopting instead a mask-optional policy. This policy departs from both the Alabama Department of Public Health’s and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for K-12 schools.
On Aug. 13, the Vestavia Board of Education released a paper to parents, signed by Jennifer Weaver, vice president of the Vestavia Hills Board of Education, and education board member Scott Brown, outlining its defense for optional masking, citing the risk of harmful psychological effects and adverse educational impacts of mask mandates, apparent low risk of severe complications from COVID-19 among 0–17-year-olds, and local and state authorities not yet implementing a community-wide mask mandate for Vestavia Hills, or the rest of Alabama.
“In an effort to address the academic, mental health, physical health, and social-emotional impacts of our Plan, we adopted mitigation strategies that were most widely acknowledged as helpful and had the least likelihood of negative impact,” the paper states. “In balancing these factors, the Plan does encourage masking while not mandating masking. This approach is an attempt to avoid the negative outcomes associated with mandatory masking while attempting to capture some of the benefits that some experts and studies associate with masks.”
Several citations — including an opinion piece by Dr. Marty Makary of John Hopkin’s and H. Cody Miessner, MD, of Tufts Medical Center published in the Wall Street Journal after the Board’s decision’s release — have been called into question by the group of parents, who penned a rebuttal letter to the board Aug. 18, stating the paper contained “flawed research” and “outdated information” inside the cited articles and studies.
“The Vestavia Hills Board of Education, unlike the Boards of Education for the surrounding cities of Birmingham, Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook, and Trussville, has instituted a mask optional policy, without soliciting public input, as part of its 2021-22 Health and Wellness Plan,” the group states in this rebuttal letter. “[The Board] asserts masks negatively impact speech and academic learning, yet the Board – which presumably has access to its own grade- and school-level data, including historical performances – provides no statistics whatsoever supporting these contentions; References easily discredited, often foreign authorities, such as studies prepared by a political think tank, another offered by a Maryland physician who asserted wide-spread herd immunity would be present five months ago, and a German study of a questionable nature; Does not even try to address the more infectious nature of the Delta variant; and indicates physicians were consulted, but glaringly does not name a single doctor who endorses in the Plan.”
The number of doctors and researchers who signed their names onto the rebuttal is more than 45. And 2,069 have signed a petition urging the Vestavia Hills Board of Education to adhere to ADPH’s recommendations for schools, making masks mandatory.
Some members of the over 700 concerned parents group are expected to directly voice their concerns in-person at the Vestavia Hills Board of Education next meeting Monday, Aug. 23. at 4 p.m.
Wednesday, UAB infectious disease experts told APR the COVID-19 delta variation is infecting a greater number of children than ever before. As of Friday, 50 children were hospitalized statewide, according to ADPH.