RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Even though several Central Virginia school districts have already made a decision on whether to keep their mask mandate or follow Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order and allow parents to choose, some districts are changing their minds.
The Louisa County Public Schools switched their approach following a school board vote on Thursday night. The board voted to allow parents to choose whether their kids wear a mask at school, starting Monday, Jan. 31.
The motion includes a strong recommendation from the board that all students continue to wear masks while at school. But, the board said they respect Gov. Youngkin’s executive authority.
In alignment with the federal order that’s currently in place, masks will still continue to be required on all Louisa County schools transportation. The board said that bullying of any kind toward an individual regarding their masking choice will not be tolerated.
The decision is opposite from the update Superintendent Doug Straley sent out Jan. 19.
“As we await further clarification from the Virginia General Assembly and the Virginia Supreme Court, we will continue moving forward with our current guidelines of requiring masks for both staff and students at this time,” he said in the original update Wednesday, Jan. 19.
On Friday, the Powhatan County school board held a special school board meeting in the middle of the afternoon to address their mask policy. Board chair Kim Drew Hymel said they scheduled the meeting at the request of two board members who want to change their vote, originally made in December. The board didn’t take a new vote Friday and instead just heard concerns from members and parents.
In December, long before Gov. Youngkin’s order, the school board met and voted unanimously in favor of allowing parents the choice for masks in the classroom.
Board member Valarie Ayers told 8News she and board member Rick Cole were not in support of having a 3 p.m. meeting on a Friday. She said the meeting notice was posted on Tuesday and apologized for the meeting happening on such short notice.
“I will not be speaking on masks today because of the timing of this meeting,” Ayers said in the meeting Friday. “Many parents and teachers that have contacted me were not able to be here because they’re still in school.”
Cole said he has heard from teachers and parents on their concern over making a change to the mask policy and over the timing of it. He said they were concerned with the number of COVID-19 cases that have dramatically increased. He said another concern was over immunocompromised children, saying giving freedom to everybody to be maskless actually puts some immunocompromised students in a situation where they have no freedom at all.
“Even though they have a mask on, they are at greater risk for getting sick, greater risk for missing school,” Cole said. “I’m fearful, number one, that if one of these students gets sick, seriously ill, misses school or worse yet, loses their life.”
District two board member Susan Smith said there are other mitigating measures to be looked at to help support parents and students in making the transition to schools without masks. She said, as a board member, she cannot ask a student, nor teacher, that has taken their mask off to put it back on. Smith said it has to be their choice.
“I would rather see us spend a little money, and for teachers who have those immune compromised students in their classroom, put an individual air filtration system in that class,” Smith said in the Friday board meeting.
District four board member James Taylor said the board put the choice of masks back into the hands of parents in December. He said the board has clearly heard from the citizens of the state and constituents of the county.
“We have received vastly more emails asking us to uphold the decision we made in December. I like the decision we made; I think it’s the best decision,” he said.
Board chair and district five member Kim Drew Hymel ended the Friday meeting mentioning that the board has received a lot of emails about the topic. She said the emails are clear — the majority of parents want a choice and the choice is also in alignment with the governor’s order.
“The people who have concerns about the executive order, we hear your concerns,” she told the crowd of about 10 people Friday.
Several people stood for public comment Friday, several of them thanking the board for being proactive to vote to get rid of the mask mandate. A few speakers questioned the effectiveness of masks.
The Powhatan County Public School board’s next meeting will be on Feb. 8.