IW schools keep mask mandate

Published 2:26 pm Thursday, January 27, 2022

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Isle of Wight County’s School Board on Jan. 20 voted 4-1 to continue its mask mandate — becoming the latest Virginia school system to defy Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masks optional.

Youngkin had signed the order on Jan. 15, his first day in office. It repeals Virginia’s universal K-12 mask mandate and requires that parents be allowed to opt their children out of any school-imposed mask mandate, without needing to provide a reason.

Isle of Wight’s vote followed a roughly 40-minute closed session at a special meeting to discuss “operational and legal ramifications” with the school board attorney. Youngkin’s order notwithstanding, the mask policy “complies with all applicable laws,” School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes said.

Vice Chairman Michael Cunningham, however, acknowledged the Board’s decision is “probably going to go to court.”

District 1 board member John Collick, who cast the sole dissenting vote, had urged his colleagues to leave the choice to parents.

“We’re talking about whether a parent has the right to decide what is in the best interest of his or her child,” Collick said.

“I understand some of the parents don’t want their kids to wear the masks, but then what about the parents who do want the kids to wear the masks?” Cunningham asked. “Then, we also gotta look at the teachers.”

But District 4 member Renee Dial, a physician assistant by day, argued leaving the matter to parental choice could have dire consequences for students who are immunocompromised, diabetic, or who have asthma.

“Those persons will be at higher risk of being hospitalized than any other population,” Dial said. “Some people may just get flu-like symptoms, some people may have no symptoms at all, but what about those that die?”

“I’ve seen emails saying ‘my kids are coming to school on Monday with no mask, and we’ll have the executive order in (their) backpack’ … we’re going to have to deal with that, and we will,” Cunningham said. “I’d prefer for us to work together. This is not political. This is about saving kids.”

The School Board, which has seen four of its five seats change hands since last August, had initially planned to make masks optional for the current school year. Those plans changed when former State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver issued a public health order mandating K-12 masking amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

Oliver left his post — according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch at Youngkin’s urging — on Jan. 14. Youngkin’s order, which describes the newer omicron variant as causing “less severe illness,” directs the new acting state health commissioner, former Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Collin Greene, to terminate his predecessor’s public health order. It further directs Youngkin’s pick for Virginia’s new superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Barlow, to “rescind the Interim Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools” and “issue new guidance for COVID-19 Prevention consistent with this Order.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19-related hospitalizations among children ages 0-17 have decreased from the record-breaking levels seen during the first week of January, but remain well above the peak of the delta wave seen last fall.

“Who wants to be responsible for a kid, or anybody, dying because we didn’t do what we could have done?” Cunningham asked, rhetorically.

Tynes then spoke of an email she’d received from a parent, who’d reportedly told board members she planned to keep her special needs son home from school should the mask mandate go away.

“This child, because of their unique differences, would not be able to learn at all, because that child is not able to do virtual learning,” Tynes said. “If I vote ‘no’ to (the mask mandate), then I’m telling that parent and that child, ‘We’re not going to educate you,’ and I can’t do that.”

Even if the mask mandate were to end, they’re still required under federal law on all public transportation, including school buses, she added.

Following the vote, Collick urged parents opposed to the mask mandate to “respect the process, even if you don’t agree with it” and not “put the burden on the teachers … or the bus drivers.”

On Jan. 21, the VDH and Virginia Department of Education jointly released new guidelines for educators, parents and schools in line with Youngkin’s executive order, which advises schools unable to maintain operations while maintaining distances of three feet between students to “layer other prevention strategies,” including “testing programs, adequate or increased ventilation, ensuring appropriate hand hygiene opportunities, staying home when sick, supporting parents who choose to send their child to school with a mask, and regular cleaning and disinfecting.”

“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents,” Youngkin wrote in an accompanying press release. “Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents … In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process.”