The start of Carroll County schools was pushed back to Aug. 24 as the county Board of Education voted Monday to take a “soft opening approach” to the 2020-2021 school year.

During a special called meeting that was supposed to focus on the fiscal year 2021 budget and millage rate, the board unanimously voted to delay the start of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the second time that the start date has been pushed back; the first re-start had been set for Aug. 10, the new official date is Aug. 24.

The delay will have a “soft opening” approach as described by superintendent Scott Cowart. This means that from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24, students will have “phased in-person school experience” during which students could potentially see at least one day of in-person school activity.

The current plan allows for students to officially return on Aug. 24 and not have their fall and winter breaks affected. If circumstances will not allow for a return to traditional in-person learning on Aug. 24, then the district will begin blended distance learning until circumstances improve.

While the decision to push back school received praise, the topics of a mask requirement remains a highly debated topic. Many parents during the public input portion of the meeting called for a requirement for facial coverings, as opposed to the current plan where masks are “strongly encouraged.”

There were a few parents, however, who also advocated for the ability to choose whether or not to wear a mask. Similarly, many board members also were in favor of the option to choose.

Dr. Robert Pinckney, who represents District Three, was, however, the only board member to declare that he believes that masks should be a requirement — and if the board were to have to vote on a reopening plan, he would not vote for a plan that did not have a mask mandate included.

“I support a mandatory wearing of masks,” said Pinckney.

While masks will not be required, Cowart did say that he wanted to make it clear that the district is not against wearing masks and is encouraging the use of masks when social distancing is not possible. He also suggested that the language be changed to reflect that not only are masks encouraged, but when social distancing is not possible, the facial coverings are expected to be worn.

The school system offers an opt-in virtual learning program for families who wish to keep their students safe by learning remotely. So far, 19% of the student body has applied for virtual learning or 2,839 students.

There are 1,216 Elementary students, 768 Middle School students, and 854 High School students. Of this, the Bowdon cluster has 166 students who have applied; Central has 475; Mt. Zion has 199; Temple has 555; and Villa Rica has 1,443.

The district surveyed all staff pertaining to the question of strongly encouraging or requiring face coverings as a part of the safety protocols to start school and 1,422 of the district’s 1,800 staff replied to the survey.

Of those who replied, 55% favored masks being strongly encouraged while 45% favored masks being required.

In Carroll County, there have been 1,587 positive cases of COVID-19, 42 deaths, and 122 cumulative hospitalizations for the virus, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

As of July 23, Tanner Health System reported that the hospital in Carrollton had 37 patients hospitalized, which is approximately 20% of the total number of inpatient beds.

The previous record for the day with the highest number of hospitalizations at the Carrollton hospital was 29 patients on April 1, according to the daily updates.

Additionally, the% of positive cases in the health system as a whole as increased from the last weekly update and is now at 13.72%.

The health system is currently reporting 1,633 positive test results as of July 23, which is an increase of over 250 positive cases in one week. A total of 12,301 tests have been performed and there are 400 tests awaiting results.