CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — Chesterfield County Public Schools will keep its policy of universal masking in place for the time being, but promised to revisit the policy once the state superintendent releases complete guidance on how to implement Governor Youngkin’s executive order.
While three of the board’s five members said they wanted to end the masking policy, board member Debbie Bailey (Dale District), said they simply couldn’t move forward without guidance from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). For example, members questioned how schools should proceed with contract tracing and quarantine guidelines when many kids are in buildings maskless.
“We need the state superintendent of public instruction to give us the guidance that we have been asked for, that has been promised, before we move forward,” Bailey said.
“Governor Youngkin gave us one week,” she said, noting that the state had stuck the local school boards with an “aggressive timeline” that calls on them to rescind mask mandates by Monday, Jan. 24.
Bailey, along with Board Chair Ann Coker (Bermuda District) and member Kathryn Haines (Midlothian District), voted to keep the mask mandate in place until the VDOE issues explicit guidance.
“Governor Youngkin. We are asking for your help,” Coker said. “I want to be very clear. I do intend and want to follow through with the governor’s executive order number two when these guidelines are released.”
The two board members voting against the measure did so for very different reasons.
Ryan Harter (Matoaca District) pushed for an immediate end to the mask mandate, saying that masking was “no longer a practical strategy” since it was not mandated at the state level anymore.
“People are responsible for their own safety and health decisions,” he said.
Dot Heffron (Clover Hill district) also voted against the resolution, but called on the board to reject the governor’s executive order outright.
“This executive order usurps the power vested in our democratically-elected school board,” she said, citing an article of the Virginia Constitution which states that “supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.”
Heffron was seemingly the only member clearly planning to vote against adopting the executive order when a vote is tallied up again. “Now is simply not the time to have classrooms full of children, some vaccinated, some not, without masks on,” Heffron said.
How Haines will vote next time isn’t as clear, though the school board member said her largest concern is feedback from parents who have asked her to make sure their children aren’t placed in classrooms next to other students without masks.
The question of whether masks should be required in Chesterfield schools also attracted a flood of input from residents who submitted 2,345 online comments before the meeting. Many of those were from parents and teachers, with a wide spectrum of views on the mask mandate being voiced.
Christine Melendez, President of the Chesterfield Education Association (CEA), said in comments submitted before the meeting that the board must take “whatever steps are necessary to ensure the continuation of successful in-person learning.”
She continued on to say that with teacher absences due to COVID and chronic staffing shortages, an end to indoor mask wearing might make it impossible to continue in-person instruction.
While the school divisions policy requiring indoor masking will stay in place for now, it’s likely that, barring unforeseen developments, the board will vote to revoke it if and when the VDOE releases full guidance on implementation.
Chair Ann Coker, along with members Debbie Bailey and Ryan Harter, all expressed support for ending the policy and allowing parents to choose whether their children wear masks in school – but Coker and Bailey both said it would be unfair to teachers and staff to move forward without solid guidance from the state.
The question is when the guidance will arrive. Board members said they had been promised guidance from the state, but there was no sign of it Wednesday night as they prepared for Thursday’s meeting.
CCPS parent Jeff Layne told 8News his son won’t be waiting on a re-vote. “He will attend on Monday without his mask on and if they throw him out of school, I’ll be in court with them,” Layne said.