​​Masks optional in IW schools starting March 1

Published 8:40 pm Thursday, February 10, 2022

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Isle of Wight County’s School Board voted 4-1 on Thursday to make masks optional for students and visitors at its schools starting March 1.

Students will still have to wear masks on all forms of public transportation, including school buses, per federal law. According to Vice Chairman Michael Cunningham, teachers will also have to stay masked during the school day per a regulation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The board’s vote comes one day after the state Senate passed a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of any mask mandate imposed by a public school, without needing to provide a reason, and prohibiting schools from taking disciplinary action against students who choose not to wear masks. Three Democrats joined with Republicans in voting for the bill. Later this month, the bill will head to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, where it’s expected to advance to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk for his signature. Youngkin issued a Feb. 9 statement calling the bill a “win” for “kids across the Commonwealth.”

The language of the bill is similar to an executive order Youngkin signed his first day in office, which has been tied up in three separate legal challenges. Isle of Wight’s School Board previously voted in January to defy the order and keep its mask mandate in place.

An Arlington Circuit Court judge imposed a temporary pause to Youngkin’s order on Feb. 4, finding in favor of seven school boards – most from Northern Virginia – that had contested Youngkin’s authority to use his executive powers to rescind the universal K-12 mask mandate issued last August in the wake of a surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

Three days later, on Feb. 7, Virginia’s Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by 13 Chesapeake parents who had argued Youngkin’s order conflicts with a 2021 state law requiring public schools to provide in-person instruction in a manner that “to the maximum extent practicable,” adheres to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. The CDC still recommends universal masking by all students ages 2 and older, teachers, and visitors regardless of vaccination status.

“The (COVID-19) numbers are coming down … so we just want to do what’s right,” Cunningham said.

According to District 1 board member John Collick, the bill will become law on July 1, assuming it passes the House and Youngkin signs it. For him to implement it earlier than July 1, both houses would need to revote on the earlier date.

Per Collick’s motion, Isle of Wight will end its mask mandate March 1 “no matter how the General Assembly votes.”

“If it’s inevitable and it’s going to happen March 1, what’s the difference with two weeks?” asked District 2 board member Michael Vines, who’d initially supported keeping Isle of Wight’s mask mandate in place.

According to Chairwoman Denise Tynes, the two-week delay is to allow students and staff members who have health issues or who reside with relatives who may be at greater risk if more masks come off to “make arrangements.”

District 4 board member Renee Dial, a physician assistant, was the one “nay” vote on Collick’s motion.