A longtime teacher at a Georgia high school died over the weekend after losing a battle to COVID-19, weeks after the district’s superintendent refused to issue a mask mandate—and instead said teachers could wear jeans for a month.
Bulloch County Coroner Jake Futch confirmed to local outlets that Penny Gary, 58, a Statesboro High School teacher, died due to complications from COVID-19 at East Georgia Regional Medical Center on Sunday. It’s unclear if Gary had been vaccinated or teaching in-person since the school year got underway earlier this month, but Bulloch County schools are largely operating in-person.
“It's a great loss to this community because she cared not only for us students but for teachers as well, she had a lot of compassion towards everybody,” William Hill, a former student who graduated from the school last year, told WJCL in an interview. “She would just make sure you were on the right track, to get you prepared for life after high school. Get you prepared for your career and everything. The past students and students currently here, we’re going to miss her greatly. There’s going to be a big void left in the Statesboro High School community.”
Her death comes after teachers and many parents had called on administrators to require masks for all students, teachers and school visitors regardless of vaccination status—something the CDC recommended in June as an important step in ensuring the safe reopening of schools. (While vaccines have been seen as a key step in fighting COVID, they’re not yet approved for children under 12.)
Pushing back on the CDC recommendation last month, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp tried to block cities and counties from issuing their own mask rules, even suing Atlanta to try to block its mask mandate. Eventually, Kemp said cities and counties could require face coverings if infections reached a certain level.
In an Aug. 2 order, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey encouraged schools to follow the CDC’s guidance on masking but said they could “elect to adhere to different quarantine requirements as developed by the local school district to facilitate in-person learning.”
Within days of reopening, four Georgia public school districts were forced to halt in-person learning temporarily because of high COVID-19 case counts and the thousands of students who were quarantining.
Bulloch County, like many of the Peach State’s counties, has been designated as a high transmission area due to the growing number of cases caused by the highly infectious Delta variant. According to CDC data, the county reported 699 new cases last week and only 21 percent of its eligible population has been fully vaccinated.
But the district has maintained in-person learning, and Bulloch County School District superintendent Charles Wilson refused to issue a mandate.
“Masks are welcome, but not required in schools or on buses,” the district’s return-to-school plan states. Social distancing is also “not required but strongly encouraged,” according to “high spread” guidelines in the plan.
In an apparent effort to cool concerns over masking at schools, Wilson sent an email blast thanking teachers for their efforts and redirecting their mask mandate requests to a different matter: relaxed requirements on what they could wear to school.
In the email sent last week and viewed by The Daily Beast, Wilson extended the “small gesture” of allowing teachers to wear jeans to work for a month without addressing mask concerns.
“I talked with principals today and we all agreed that, though it is a small gesture, you would enjoy the liberty of wearing jeans for the next month,” Wilson wrote. “So, by all means, please enjoy your jeans throughout the month of September (and the rest of August).”
Bulloch County Schools also adjusted its infectious disease protocols to make it optional for some students and employees to quarantine if they come into contact with a confirmed case at school but don’t have symptoms, the Statesboro Herald reported.
One Statesboro High administrator told WTOC that several groups of teachers had been informed about Gary’s death in person while others had received an email about her passing during the day.
Bulloch County Schools has kept a tally of weekly COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year and last week reported 245 new cases, according to its website. Statesboro High School accounted for 42 of those cases, county school data shows.
When asked about Gary’s death and the district’s pandemic-related safety measures, Bulloch County Schools public relations director Hayley Greene told The Daily Beast in an email that the district does not make statements about the deaths of its employees or students out of respect for the privacy of their families.
“The school district also implements Georgia Department of Public Health requirements to the best of our reasonable ability,” she added. “We continuously monitor what is happening in our schools and offices and make any appropriate adjustments.”