CAMDEN COUNTY, Ga. – Tuesday is the first day of school for students and teachers in Camden County.
The school start date was delayed one day due to Tropical Storm Isaias.
When students show up Tuesday, there will not be a mask mandate in place like there will be in many Northeast Florida school districts, but face coverings are still strongly encouraged.
News4Jax spotted many students at St. Marys Elementary School wearing masks Tuesday but some here and there were not.
One St. Marys mom, whose kids are starting first and second grade this year, said she’s excited for her children to be back but said her son has asthma, and for her family, this is about keeping everyone safe.
“I feel like him wearing the mask will help him out and will help others out as well,” Kelly Thompson said. “Definitely, the mask is mainly for him. And then our grandparents. I’m worried about him getting it. He has a weak immune system.”
A grandmother who dropped off a student at the busy elementary school said she was disappointed temperatures were not being taken and was stunned by how little had changed in her grandson’s classroom.
“The desks are not 6 feet apart. It’s like nothing’s changed. To me, it’s like everything is the same. Except for the cafeteria -- you pick up a lunch, then you leave,” Jean Smith said. “I’m really angry. I’m very angry because this virus will kill you.”
Smith’s daughter, Shelby, was also concerned by what she said was a lack of spacing.
“The kids are literally desk, desk, desk. And then they’re saying 17 in a room. And then in the lunchroom, they’re playing it just first grade, third grade, but you’re still putting them all together” Shelby Smith said.
The Smiths aren’t alone. Nakisha Nesmith’s son, Kayden, is starting third grade. A Head Start employee herself, Nesmith feels masks should be required inside all Camden schools.
“I understand masks are uncomfortable. It is annoying. But it’s necessary right now. That is my fear of sending him to school. I have no options. I have to work,” Nesmith said.
With new COVID-19 cases being reported by the thousands in Georgia daily, Nesmith says if it comes to it, she will take action.
“I’m taking a gamble. I prayed about it. But if something happens, I’m going to quit my job, and he won’t come back for the rest of year,” Nesmith said.
While the Smiths haven’t come to a decision, their biggest fear is Jean getting the virus.
“He can get it, bring it home to me, and then I’m done,” Jean Smith said.
The school district said there are a lot of COVID-19 safety measures in place. News4Jax asked the district for comment about the concerns of the parents we spoke to. We received this statement in response from a district spokesperson:
We are sorry to hear one of our student’s grandparents has concerns about the protocols we have in place for the reopening of schools. Our reopening plan was created in coordination with the Coastal District Department of Public Health and the protocols and procedures we have in place are based upon their recommendations and with their approval. In addition to the protocols we have in place, we offered a virtual learning option for families who may not feel ready to return to the traditional classroom and 2,400 students have chosen this option.
Every school in our system is different in layout and student population and the plans for social distancing and mitigation of risk are tailored to the specific needs of the school. Social distancing may look different at an elementary school than it does at the high school but all schools will have the same goal; to work to reduce risk while meeting the educational and socio-emotional needs of our students.
If a parent feels concerned about our return to school protocols, we encourage them to reach out to the administration at their child’s school to learn more about the practices we have in place and the ways we can partner together to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community.
News4Jax found parents and students are split on whether reopening Tuesday in Camden County is the best idea.
“It’s crazy. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to send her to school with all this COVID stuff going on,” said parent Chase Law.
Camden County resident Alyssa Fraser said: “I think it’d (be) better to keep kids in school. I think that the teachers are probably going to do everything they need do to keep kids safe.”
When asked about going back to school, Camden County High School student Saige Roche said: “I mean, it’s optional. I guess I have no choice because of sports. As long as they take precautions to keep everyone safe, I guess it’s not that big of a deal.”
In the News 4 Georgia Facebook group, News4Jax asked Camden County residents about their thoughts on the first day of schools. Numerous parents spoke out.
“Terrified. We have a 3-month-old baby in the house and I really don’t want to send mine in but they have begged to go back,” one person commented.
Another comment reads: “I think the schools have gone out of their way to accommodate everyone’s wishes. From masks to no mask, homeschooling or virtual. We’re excited to start back and have some normalcy.”
The school district told News4Jax masks are not mandated but strongly encouraged and incentivized. The district also said it has provided all staff with face masks and protective shields.
On Monday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 19 new COVID-19 cases in Camden County. Since the pandemic began, there have been a total of 689 coronavirus cases and four deaths in the county.
With the help of the state Department of Health, the school district created a “COVID-19 Decision Guide” to assist staff, families and community members in making decisions regarding the virus.