A parade of speakers at Thursday’s Albemarle County School Board meeting urged the members to keep the school district’s mask mandate in place.
Most of the 22 speakers who signed up thanked the board for keeping the COVID mitigation measures in place. They said those measures, especially the mask mandate, have helped keep the community safe during the recent surge in cases.
The parents, teachers and a student encouraged the board to only roll back the measures following careful consideration of local, state and federal recommendations and local data points.
“As a substitute teacher, I’m concerned about going into classrooms where masks are not mandated,” said Laura Neu, an Albemarle County parent. “It would make my decision to cover for teachers in the schools much more difficult because my first priority is keeping my family healthy and safe.”
The comments came as state lawmakers look to curb local school boards’ authority to mandate masks in class. Several area school divisions have dropped policies requiring everyone wear a mask while indoors but Albemarle and Charlottesville have kept theirs.
“I recognize the General Assembly in Richmond is doing whatever they can to take the power out of your hands to stand up for folks here,” said Kellen Squire, an emergency department nurse and Albemarle parent. “I don’t know how that’s gonna come out, but I just wanted to say thank you guys very much.”
Chris Seaman, an Albemarle County parent who is part of a lawsuit to block Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order overturning local school mask mandates, spoke in support of the current mask policy.
“Almost half of children between five and 11 are not fully vaccinated yet in Albemarle County,” he said. “This is not the time to let our guard down. I am deeply grateful for all the measures that teachers, principals, administrators and staff have taken and will continue to take to keep our kids safe in school and continue to go in-person.”
Parker, a fourth-grader at Crozet Elementary who didn’t give his last name, said he thought the board was doing a good job at having everyone wearing masks in school.
“I think me and a lot of other students at school are happy to be back inside of school,” Parker said. “I think all the teachers are doing a great job teaching Black history, which I understand that some people do not support. That’s it. Thank you.”
Desi Smith, a freshman in the virtual school, thanked the board for providing the virtual option along with keeping the mask policy in place.
“Although I’m a virtual student, I have friends and teachers that I want to be as safe as possible,” Smith said. “I also want to talk about the Black history and racial injustice being taught in schools. I say those folks together because Black history — the good and the bad — does include racial injustice. The governor’s tip line and the fear it instills is unfair to all the teachers who want to teach black history and injustice but are afraid they’ll be reported or lose their jobs.”
Smith said that Black history is necessary to teach and learn.
“It’s also crucial that we acknowledge that racial injustice and racism is a real issue, and we’re able to learn to talk about it,” Smith said.
Other speakers shared their support for the division’s anti-racism policy, which is currently being challenged in court, and the teaching of Black history. Other parents expressed concern for changes happening at the middle school level.
Teachers who called into the virtual meeting said the current measures have made them feel safer at work.
“I want to extend my deepest thanks to you all for supporting our schools in Albemarle County with clear-eyed, just policies that honor and protect all of our students,” said Laurel Gillette, a teacher in the division.
Erin Wise-Ackenbom, a special education teacher, said teachers with small children were fearful of not having masks.
“I appreciate the mitigation strategies you have in place,” she said. “I know it hasn’t been easy and I know you’ve worked really hard.”
Wise-Ackenbom noted that there’s a shortage of teachers in Albemarle County.
“We’re struggling daily to get substitutes to cover for sick teachers,” Wise-Ackenbom said. “This puts phenomenal strain on our vice principals and support staff to cover for each other. That’s why it’s really great to mask.”