Albemarle County schools Superintendent Matt Haas is planning to revise the division’s policy requiring masks or cloth face coverings.
Haas’s decision, discussed at the end of Thursday’s School Board meeting, comes after the Albemarle Education Association sent a letter to board members detailing its concerns with the policy and how the division was implementing it. The AEA previously has raised a number of issues related to the reopening of schools.
In the letter, the AEA took issue with a provision that allows students to have mask breaks throughout the day as permitted by teachers. The division is planning to remove that language, and the revised policy is expected to be in place within about a week.
Teachers with AEA are concerned that the policy opens up teachers to complaints from students and parents.
“Some teachers will be seen as the good guys who let their kids take masks off for a bit,” said Michelle Drago, a teacher at Stone-Robinson Elementary. “Others will be the bad guys who make them keep them on. A student or parent who wishes to not wear a mask could possibly use the ambiguity of the statement to complain or overrule a teacher.”
Drago added that the current policy puts the burden of deciding whether to enforce mask wearing at all times on the individual teacher.
“That’s not acceptable,” she said. “Leadership needs to make the decision themselves. That is the only way we can try to protect our staff, students and families.”
In their letter to the School Board, AEA members pointed to several recent studies that found that brief periods indoors without masks increased the risk of COVID-19 transmission, even if social distancing is practiced and ventilation is increased.
About half of preschoolers through third-graders in the county will return to the classroom starting the week of Nov. 9 as part of Stage Three of the division’s reopening plan.
The AEA discussed the policy with division leadership in a meeting earlier last week, which Haas said helped him to understand their concerns.
“What they were looking for was more specific direction and less discretion,” he said.
Following that meeting, Haas said the plan is to revise the policy to be more directive and to provide less flexibility for teachers.
“More of a top-down edict on how things were to be done,” he said.
The policy currently allows students to remove their masks on a case-by-case basis for specific instructional needs or activities, or as otherwise determined by a teacher, including to provide a brief respite from wearing a mask or face covering, when students and staff are six feet apart.
Masks also can be removed during lunch or snack time. For sports, recess and physical education classes, masks won’t be required if a physical distance of 10 feet can be maintained.
“The AEA already opposes requiring teachers to eat in classrooms with students,” the group’s Executive Board wrote in the letter. “Research makes clear that it would be safer if students ate outdoors when weather allows it and indoors in larger spaces, such as gyms and auditoriums, when weather doesn’t allow outdoor eating. But under no circumstances is it safe or acceptable for students to take masks off for ‘brief respites’ when not eating or drinking. This is not the policy the AEA proposed, and it is not the policy the board voted on.”
The association’s concerns about lunch time — when students won’t be wearing masks and staff are expected to be in the same classroom — were not addressed.
Officials with the Thomas Jefferson Health District said earlier this month that eating outdoors, when possible, is preferred. Otherwise, students should eat at their desk or designated space that’s at least six feet apart from others, which the division is planning to do. Teachers should remain distanced and wear a mask, if possible, and eat lunch at a different time when practicable, the health district said.
In August, School Board attorney Ross Holden said the mask policy was intended to be one of general application.
“There will likely be regulations or a standard operating procedure that may vary with either classroom, the developmental level of the students, or even the school itself,” Holden told School Board members at their Aug. 13 meeting when presenting the policy.
Holden suggested that students in a classroom with a door to the outside could go outside and take their mask off for a break.
“Maybe there’s a place in the classroom — away from the teacher and other students — where the mask can be taken off for a very, very short period of time,” Holden said at the meeting.
Since the policy was adopted in August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that people can become infected with the virus via airborne transmission, even when they are more than six feet apart. However, the agency said airborne transmission is not the primary way the virus spreads, which is still through close contact with someone who is infected.
On Wednesday, the CDC expanded its definition for who is considered a close contact of an infected person.
Previously, someone was considered a close contact if they were within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes continuously. Now, it’s more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. Those who are close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days.
School Board member Judy Le said the new definition made her concerned about the idea of mask breaks in addition to the other comments from teachers at the board meeting.
Kathryn Goodman, spokeswoman for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, said the definition change will affect contact tracing efforts, effective immediately.
“TJHD staff are now using this new definition when conducting investigations to determine if someone is considered to be a close contact, so that changes who may need to quarantine,” she said Thursday, adding that the health district will be working to notify the public of the change. “[TJHD] will work closely with schools to help notify families of this definition change as it may impact when students are considered a close contact.”
Charlottesville City Schools’ policy requiring masks also includes language allowing for a “brief respite” from wearing a mask or cloth face covering.
Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said at Thursday’s city School Board meeting that the CDC’s change underscored the need to keep students in small groups and not allow students from separate cohorts to interact.
“It doesn’t change the recommended mitigation strategies, but it will have implications for contact tracing and definitely reinforces the importance of cohorts,” Powell said.
The county School Board won’t need to approve the revised policy before it can be implemented, as it’s an operational matter, Haas said.
“Given the exigency of the recent changes and also with the desire to have our teachers feel comfortable and safe, we will make sure that it’s changed,” Haas said, adding that it will be shared with AEA and the board, as well.
Holden said the division is planning to develop illustrative scenarios so that teachers, administrators, parents and students know what’s expected.
“Our intent is to start revising in a way that would make it the policy that would be more applicable without having the teachers make ad hoc decisions,” Holden said.
Deputy Superintendent Debbie Collins said that the division also is planning to develop a standard operating procedure to ensure that implementation of the policy is consistent.