OZARK, Ala. (WDHN) — Many students in the Wiregrass are back in the classroom this week, and one district in Dale County is defending its decision to enforce a mask mandate for its students and staff.

According to the Superintendent for Ozark City Schools, Reeivice Girtman, initially, it was the goal for teachers and students in the district to choose whether or not to wear a mask in schools. However, after seeing a substantial increase in COVID cases in the community, the district decided to put in place a district-wide mask mandate.

“The biggest benefit of the masks is they limit the amount of quarantine you have to do,” Girtman said. “We want to be able to allow our teachers, and our staff, students to come back to school.”

Girtman wants to emphasize to parents that this mask mandate is put in place not only to keep COVID-19 cases low but to keep teachers and students inside classrooms and also to minimize the time people need to quarantine after exposure.

“The methods may not always be what you agree with,” Girtman said. “Certainly, the meaning and intent behind them are always pure. It is our goal to keep our students in school, face-to-face.”

OCS is now following the Centers for Disease and Control protocols, and the Alabama Department of Public Health’s recommendations. The district’s mandate states all students, faculty, and school guests must be masked up in school buildings, buses, and inside events.

“We are concerned with their health,” Girtman said. “We are wondering if there is anything else that we can do to help them and their families, but then it goes back to what we can do at schools to keep our schools safe and clean so we can offer face-to-face instruction.”

Girtman wants to ensure parents and guardians of Ozark City Schools that this is just a temporary solution. Teachers and students will be able to decide whether or not to remove their masks once COVID-19 numbers in the community decrease.

“Everything starts with the leadership at our schools,” Girtman said. “We trust our principals to make good decisions. I would urge our parents to talk to our principals, our school nurses.”

Superintendent Gartman also tells WDHN, Ozark City Schools will be offering free COVID-19 testing for all teachers, staff, and students starting Monday, Jan. 10. This testing is of course optional and just another resource to keep learning for students and teachers as normal as possible by remaining in the classroom.