Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney told Board of Education members the COVID-19 data continues to trend in the right direction, and he continues to exercise caution by following the recommendation of public health experts for the school district.

Case rates for cities in the school district range from 146.7 per 100,000 in Milton to 410 per 100,000 in Union City as of Oct. 12, the Fulton County Board of Health reported. Sandy Springs recorded 159.4 cases per 100,000 in that same 14-day period.

Superintendent of Schools Mike Looney said do no harm is his practice for keeping students and FCS employees safe from COVID-19.

“I’m really looking forward to the day where we can make masks optional again in Fulton County Schools. Hopefully that’s going to be in the near future,” Looney said.

He said 83% of school district employees reported they are vaccinated.

“What happens when we get below 100 cases per 100,000 in a municipality?” Board member Gail Dean asked.

Looney said the mitigation matrix requires two consecutive reports to shift from one level to the next. When a city falls below 100 cases for two reporting periods, masks become optional and limits are removed on visitors. Seating charts are kept for contact tracing purposes. Mask requirements on buses will continue because it’s a federal mandate.

Board member Katie Reeves said more parents question her about whether the 100 cases per 100,000 is the benchmark to follow when hundreds of millions of Americans have been vaccinated. Far fewer hospitalizations have been recorded.

She said the people talking to her don’t have a sense of disbelief about COVID-19.

“Parents do not want to have the mask off for a couple of weeks then be masking up again, mask off and mask up again, mask off and then mask up again,” Reeves said. “They’re worried that we’re going to have a bouncing ball that’s chasing every flu outbreak.”

Looney said as the superintendent of schools he feels compelled to follow guidance from health agencies charged with giving them that guidance and direction for public health issues.

“My hope is that the CDC, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Fulton County Board of Health will continue to learn from this pandemic experience and adjust their recommendations and guidance to schools,” he said.

Reeves said she hears from parents that they see the same curve on the graphs for COVID-19 cases in neighboring counties without mask mandates and they look indistinguishable from Fulton County’s rates.

The school district has been sued by a group of parents over the mask mandate for this school year.

“I guess the question I don’t have a good time answering is to my parents who say if that graph in Cobb looks the same, if that graph in Cherokee looks the same, then what is the impact of the masks?” she asked.

Looney said he doesn’t necessarily believe 100 cases per 100,000 is the magic number, but it’s what the CDC, state and county boards of health say is an indication of high level of community spread. The school district does question that number with health officials, he said.

“It’s one thing to question it. It’s another thing to arbitrarily establish another number, based on my gut and my intuition and anecdotal evidence from a neighboring district, rather than the expertise of epidemiologists and some statisticians from a larger perspective,” Looney said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.