Most of the school districts in the Charlottesville area are keeping their mask policies in place, citing state law and a legal challenge to an executive order concerning masking in schools.
Only school systems in Greene, Madison and Orange counties have relaxed their mask policies following Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order that says parents can opt out of school mask mandates. That order goes into effect Monday, but a group of parents in Chesapeake City challenged the order’s authority in a lawsuit filed last week with the Virginia Supreme Court.
“Our plan is to follow the law and the Virginia Supreme Court should provide us with the legal clarity necessary to make any further decisions with confidence,” Louisa County schools Superintendent Doug Straley said in a message to families Jan. 19.
Louisa County had initially said parents could choose whether their child would wear a mask, though Straley noted they were awaiting additional guidance from the state. Until the school division receives further clarification from state lawmakers and the Supreme Court, masks will be required for students and staff.
Critics of the executive order, educator groups and parents in the lawsuit have argued that the order conflicts with Senate Bill 1303, which was adopted last year by the General Assembly and signed into law. That law requires schools to provide five days of in-person instruction and to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to the maximum extent possible. Currently, the CDC is recommending universal masking for K-12 schools.
“Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents,” Youngkin said in a news release Friday. “I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1. In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal and trust the legal process.”
The Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Nelson County school divisions cited that state law in their separate announcements last week that the existing mask mandates would stay in place.
Senate Bill 1303 expires in August.
The debate over whether masks should be required comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fueled by the more transmissible omicron variant, which also has been cited among those who want to keep masks on.
The Blue Ridge Health District has reported 8,026 new cases and 149 new hospitalizations — both of which are records. Charlottesville and Albemarle schools also have seen significantly higher case counts since winter break.
Charlottesville schools reported 109 new cases among students and 12 among staff members last week. In Albemarle County, 100 students are currently in quarantine because of a possible exposure to COVID-19 in the schools. The district reported 114 new cases among students and 22 among staff members.
The Greene County school division will be the only one in the health district that won’t require masks on Monday. The School Board voted 3-2 during a special meeting Friday evening to lift the mandate, according to NBC29. Board members said parents should have the final say.
About 23% of Greene County students have been absent since winter break as well as 13% of staff, according to data presented during the meeting. The district has had 95 new cases since winter break.
In Fluvanna County, superintendent Peter Gretz wrote in a message to families that he had learned about an effort among some students who were encouraging students to go to school Monday without a mask.
“I urge you not to bring conflict to our schools Monday, and certainly not to involve children in it,” he wrote. “Our students have missed too much school, they need instruction, connection and normalcy. Deliberately encouraging students to come to school without masks will not only be disruptive, but damaging to the entire school and community.”
Fluvanna’s mask requirement is staying in place while the district awaits the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Chesapeake lawsuit and a School Board decision. He encouraged families to pause and wait until there’s more information.
“I am confident we will have crystal clear direction soon regarding the executive order and masks in school,” Gretz wrote. “When we do, the prevailing disposition will invariably upset a great number of people. Some of you desperately want everyone masked in school, others want just as desperately to see the mandate removed. My hope is that what will unite all of us is our commitment to making life and school as normal, rewarding and enjoyable as possible for our children, given the current conditions.”
Outside of the health district, the Buckingham County School Board voted 4 to 3 on Jan. 20 to keep the mask policy in place — a decision that will be revisited when current conditions change, according to board documents.
Madison County’s School Board voted Jan. 13 to change its mask policy and allow families to opt-out in anticipation of a change at the state level. Following the board’s decision, all staff members, students and parents were allowed to request and automatically receive an individual exception to the indoor mask requirement.
Madison County also is seeking to provide each student and staff member with an N95 or similar high-quality mask as soon as practicable, per board documents.
‘A daily struggle’
A contentious School Board meeting in Orange County on Thursday ended with a 4-1 vote to make the wearing of masks optional and the seemingly unrelated retirement of superintendent Cecil Snead.
John Lyon, a history teacher at Orange County High School, said Sunday that he’ll be interested to see how many people have resigned from the school on Monday.
Lyon said he has seen educators resigning all year but the recent mask debates seem to be a breaking point. The staff shortages and concerns about safety at school have led to an “intense level of frustration,” he said.
Lyon said that he hasn’t received much guidance following the board’s decision other than a document outlining a change to the division’s mitigation protocols. In addition to ending the mask requirement, the school division will no longer investigate positive cases at schools to determine who might’ve been exposed. Those who do test positive will be required to stay at home for five days and then wear a well-fitting mask for five days when they return.
“Honestly, it has been a daily struggle not to turn in my resignation,” Lyon said. “I’ve been involved in education in some way, shape or form since 1999, so clearly I’m kind of invested in public education. But ‘ve got an elderly parents that I’m worried about, and I help take care of them.”
He told board members at the meeting that if asked to choose between his family and a job, “my family wins out every time,” he said.
The board’s decision comes after a longtime employee at Orange County High School died this month from COVID-19.
“She was basically the heart and soul of that school,” he said. “… For me personally, her loss was pretty impactful. I think that certainly our school system, or our school, it’s going to take a while to recover from that. I just worry that we’re not reflecting on what happened with her enough. It’s like, oh, this happened, so we’re moving on, we have new problems to face. And we’re not learning anything from what happened.”
School staff members spoke during public comment in favor of keeping masks, sharing stress they’ve been under and their fears of carrying the virus from the classroom back home to vulnerable family members.
Those who spoke against the current policy said making masks optional would put parents back in control of raising their children.
Snead recommended to the School Board that the current mask requirement stay in place. He cited the high case numbers in Orange County and guidance from the CDC for universal masking.
“We are short on staff,” he said. “It’s not sustainable for them. … There’s this balance. My heart goes out to everyone who has different opinions and beliefs. Sometimes those opinions and beliefs become so impassioned that all logic escapes us sometimes.”
Only board chairwoman Sherrie Page voted for keeping masks mandatory.
Few board members acknowledged the concerns raised by staff members during their comments. One board member did propose that the division explore purchasing N95 masks for staff members.
Mike Williams, a School Board member, participated remotely because he has COVID-19. He said he was vaccinated and that his symptoms were more mild.
“It’s my estimate that the individual ultimately must understand and fend for them and their families,” Williams said. “Parents have given and given over the last two years. The masks are not going to go anywhere. The only thing is there’s going to be an option.”