CULLMAN COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — Within the first five days of the school year, nearly 400 students and staff at Cullman County Schools have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are in quarantine, the system reported Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, there are 373 students and faculty across the school system who are currently dealing with the virus or are quarantined. The first day of school was Aug. 11.

Earlier this month, the school system had put together a mask policy that, while not requiring students to wear masks in the classroom, recommended using them.

There was originally supposed to be a special called school board meeting Tuesday to discuss a possible change to their mask policy. On Tuesday morning, Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette announced the meeting had been canceled and that discussions to change the mask policy had been put on hold.

Instead, Barnette released a video on the school system’s Facebook page where, among other things, he announced that masks would continue to be optional, that students wearing masks while in close contact would not be sent home, and asked parents to keep students with COVID-19 symptoms at home.

“A lot of our numbers right now are students that are coming to school either exposed at home or they’ve already shown symptoms or tested positive and we’ve sent them home from school,” Barnette said in the video. “I need those students to stay at home and just report that to the school that they’ve either been exposed or that they’ve tested positive. If you’ll do that, and if you’ll work with me, we can keep our schools open and we can keep our kids in school.”

“We want the children to succeed, but we also want them to be healthy,” Cullman’s municipal health officer Dr. Scott Warner said. “This is not a political issue, this is a public health issue. This is not a matter of opinion, this is life and death.”  

Warner said all public health leaders agree universal masking is necessary, but as masks continue to remain optional in the district, Cullman mom Michelle Dunn chose to keep her kids out of the classroom this year.

“Knowing my kids are safe, that’s all I can ask for,” Dunn said. “I’m homeschooling them right now just to keep them out of the public schools because I know it’s going to spread fast.”

She and other parents are staying extra cautious, especially after seeing loved ones in the hospital.

“We don’t go overboard but we do try to take into consideration our health and the health of those around us whether it’s family or friends and just use a little extra caution,” Cullman grandmother Julie Cofer said.

Warner said when it comes to protecting our children, masks and vaccines will keep them safest in the classroom.

“If it’s optional, choose to do it,” Warner said. “Choose to do it because it’s the strongest thing we have. You don’t have to be told to do the right thing.”  

In other school systems like Birmingham City Schools, where masks are required for both students and faculty, 141 students and faculty had tested positive for COVID-19 as of last week. There are over 22,000 students across 42 schools in Birmingham.

There are 28 schools with over 9,000 students in Cullman County.