Chesterfield school board upholds student mask mandate for now 

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By a 3-2 vote, the Chesterfield County school board decided during a special meeting on Jan. 20 to continue a mask mandate for students that it imposed last August. 

The session was called due to an executive order by new Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) that essentially gave the decision regarding student mask use to parents. 

A federal regulation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still requires mask use on school buses. The school board’s decision only related to school property. 

After discussion, Bermuda member Ann Coker, who was voted board chair during an earlier meeting in January, made a motion to keep the current mandate in place until the board receives direction from the new superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Balow, and the Virginia Department of Education. 

Coker’s motion was seconded by Clover Hill member Dot Heffron, who was voted vice chair earlier in the month. However, Heffron ended up voting against the motion because it didn’t include advice from the Virginia Department of Health or Dr. Alexander Samuel, the county’s health director. 

“It’s going to happen” sooner rather than later, Dale board member Debbie Bailey said, referring to an end to the mask mandate. However, she said school staff needs to understand what to do from an operational standpoint. 

“There’s a litany of issues. Gov. Youngkin gave us one week to be operational,” Bailey said. “I don’t support the aggressive timeline.” 

“He’s promised us guidance from the Virginia Department of Education, and that has not arrived yet,” she said. 

In response to a question from Heffron, Bailey said, “I’m not waiting for the Virginia Department of Health or anyone else, just the rules from VDOE.”

In comments prior to the vote, Midlothian member Kathryn Haines referred to “a broken public health system.”

“We waited too long to learn that the vast majority of kids need to learn in-person,” she said. 

Haines said she received 37 emails or phone calls in support of Youngkin’s executive order and 172 in opposition.

“I acknowledge that we need an off-ramp,” she said. “Changes should be guided by science, not politics.”

There was disagreement among the board members on whether the ruling authority was Senate Bill 1303, which was passed last year, or Youngkin’s new order. Former Gov. Ralph Northam (D) also issued an order requiring masks in schools. 

Bailey noted that Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) said that SB1303 was meant as a road map to get kids back in school. “It does  not mandate masks,” Bailey said. 

“The risk of hospitalization for children is almost none,” she said, citing statistics from March 2020 that .07 percent of children have been hospitalized due to COVID-19.

“People are responsible for their own safety and their own health decisions,” Matoaca member Ryan Harter said. 

“I find this governor’s order problematic on many fronts,” Heffron said. “It contradicts Senate Bill 1303.”

After the 3-2 vote in which Bailey, Coker and Haines voted yes and Harter and Heffron voted no, Haines explained her vote. 

“I still feel we need to wait for [Virginia Department of Health] guidance as well, but I didn’t want the motion to fail,” she said. 

Bailey said she hopes the board has received guidance from Balow by their next regular business meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 8. 

The board will conduct budget work sessions on Jan. 25, Feb. 1, 8 and 16. A public hearing on the budget will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 8. A special meeting to adopt the budget will be held Feb. 22. 

In an email to constituents on Jan. 20, state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) encouraged students to conduct a “walk-in” on Jan. 24 at their schools.

“Print off the executive order … and walk your child into the school and demand that your child’s school comply. Period,” she said. Noting that “school administrators complied with every last executive order issued by [Northam],” she added, “Enough is enough.”

 

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