On the same day the House of Delegates voted to strip local school boards of their authority to require masks, a group of Charlottesville community members urged people to publicly commit to wearing masks indoors and in schools.
The House decision, combined with earlier state Senate approval, sends the bill to Gov. Glenn Younkin. If he signs the bill, which he has supported, it will become law.
“While a law allowing parent choice and undermining the mask mandate in Virginia’s schools comes closer to approval in Richmond, masking for safety will be our choice,” organizers said in a news release. “We hope that soon, universal masking will not be necessary, but we are willing to wait until it is safe for everyone.”
So far, more than 150 people have signed the open letter, which began circulating over the weekend. Signatories include local doctors, parents, teachers, students and other community members.
Irène Mathieu, a pediatrician and parent, said she signed the letter to promote COVID mitigation measures and protect the community. She said the letter was important because people are feeling pandemic fatigue with all the measures that have been in place more or less for the last two years.
“The reality is that the pandemic is still with us,” she said. “Hopefully it seems like we’re emerging from this Omicron surge, but there’s no indication that that’s going to be the last surge. There’s no sign that this virus will stop mutating. We’d have no scientific evidence to suggest that this is going to be the end of COVID, or that suddenly it will all become very mild, and no one will have to worry about it.”
Even though the surge has slowed down, Mathieu said people are still dying from COVID each day. The United States is currently averaging 2,196 new deaths over a seven-day period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think it’s really important that we, as medical professionals, and also community members, reiterate our commitment to continuing to keep our community safe as long as necessary,” she said.
The open letter highlighted the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color.
“Everyone is not at equal risk for the severe effects of Covid-19,” the open letter reads. “Black and Latinx children make up 65% of the Covid-19 deaths of children and over 60% of those who experienced MIS-C, a severe Covid-19 related inflammatory response.”
The letter writers also point out that children younger than 5 years old are not yet eligible for the vaccine and about 48% of those 5 to 11 years old are not fully vaccinated.
“Many parents do not have the ability to stay home with ill or exposed children without consequences to their income and livelihood,” the letter states. “Others live with vulnerable individuals. The science is clear that masks work, especially as part of a layered mitigation strategy. Evidence is also clear that masking does not harm children’s physical health, mental health, or learning. Masks are key to keeping schools open.”
Charlottesville City Schools has continued to require masks for students and staff members when indoors. However, the House of Delegates voted Monday along party lines in favor of a senate bill that says parents of any child enrolled in a public school or school-based early childhood program can decide whether their child wears a mask. The parent’s authority would supersede any School Board policy, according to the legislation.
Youngkin, who has sought to give parents that authority via executive orders, has pledged to attach an emergency clause to the bill, which would make it go into effect immediately. The clause will be subject to a majority vote in the House and Senate.
“We look forward to the day when transmission rates have dropped and vaccination rates are high enough that we can safely gather indoors without masks,” the open letter concludes. “We commit to doing everything we can to ensure that when that day comes, we will see all of us there, and that no more faces will be missing, and that no more families will have lost loved ones to this terrible disease.”