‘It appears to be out of our hands’

Published 8:09 pm Friday, August 6, 2021

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Isle of Wight County’s School Board was planning to vote Aug. 12 on its mask policy for the coming school year, but now the choice appears to be out of local hands.

A nationwide COVID-19 resurgence fueled by the more contagious delta variant prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools resume wearing masks indoors — even if they’re vaccinated. Gov. Ralph Northam, at an Aug. 5 press conference, said a law the General Assembly passed earlier this year mandating that schools be open five days a week also requires schools to follow CDC virus mitigation guidelines, to include its new universal mask-wearing recommendation.

“I expect school divisions to follow it,” Northam said. “If they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel.”

Based on the governor’s remarks, “it appears to be out of our hands,” said Isle of Wight County School Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr.

Prior to the governor’s remarks, Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton had recommended Isle of Wight make mask-wearing optional for the 2021-2022 school year, stating he considered the risk of an in-school outbreak to be minimal.

“Last year during the pandemic, without any vaccination, the only spread we had in school was, I believe it was the football team and the girls volleyball team at Windsor High School,” Thornton had told Isle of Wight’s School Board at a July 28 work session.

Isle of Wight was one of only two Hampton Roads school divisions to open their doors to students in September 2020. Thornton had also referenced the new in-person school law when making his recommendation, which states schools must offer in-person classes “for at least the minimum number of required instructional hours” in the coming school year, though parents can still choose to keep their children home and enroll them in online classes through Virtual Virginia.

According to Thornton, the law allows schools to temporarily revert to virtual learning should an in-school COVID-19 outbreak occur.

“If we do have some sort of outbreak … we do have liberty to say, ‘OK, we need to mask up until we get through this period of time,’” Thornton had said.

Prior to the governor’s announcement, Thornton had said the state hadn’t released clear guidance as to whether schools can ask students or staff if they’ve been vaccinated. As such, he recommended Isle of Wight not make students or staff undergo COVID-19 testing or disclose their vaccination status.

“That could violate HIPAA rights,” he said, referring to a privacy rule in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that protects all “individually identifiable health information.”

Some school divisions are looking to mitigate the risk of in-person learning amid the surge in variants by mandating that students and staff be tested, Thornton said, but, “I am not recommending that we test any students or personnel.”

Absent a federal or state mandate, Isle of Wight won’t necessarily be enforcing social distancing either.

“This physical distancing, now they’re saying it doesn’t have to be six feet, it can be three feet, and then they’re saying it can be less than three feet if you have to because the state has passed a law that you have to have in-person learning if people want it this school year,” Thornton said. “So, if everyone comes back and your classrooms can’t be three feet apart, you’re less than three feet … I do think this topic is very, very political and it keeps flip-flopping.”

But per federal law, masks are still required on any form of public transportation, to include school buses.

“I don’t have a problem with parent choice,” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Denise Tynes when optional mask-wearing was still on the table, “But we need to make sure that the parents understand that if their child is going to participate in public transportation, meaning riding our school buses, they must wear a mask, because somebody’s going to argue the fact, ‘No, they said it was my choice.’”