Valley schools weigh decision on mask requirement

Published: Jan. 18, 2022 at 7:28 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - School divisions around the Shenandoah Valley are weighing the decision of whether to require masks after Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order that ended the statewide mask mandate for schools, but it’s leaving some schools with their hands tied.

Harrisonburg City Public Schools announced Monday it would be keeping mask requirements. On Tuesday evening, the Harrisonburg School Board was the first Valley school to get together after this executive order.

Harrisonburg Superintendent Dr. Michael Richards explained that Virginia Senate Bill 1303 says schools must stay open five days a week using the CDC’s guidance. This law went into effect in July 2021 and does not expire until August 2022.

He said the only exception is if a school is temporarily mitigating a COVID-19 outbreak.

Richards said ending universal masking now could impact the elaborate safety net the schools have built to keep kids in school.

“Parents need to keep in mind that one student who is not wearing a mask in a school is dictating the educational outcomes for several days, or even weeks for lots of other students because the quarantine of other students is affected by that,” Richards said. “So we need to be careful with that.”

On Tuesday, the Harrisonburg School Board decided to move forward and survey parents and guardians on when they would like the see the masks come off students down the line.

For other school divisions around the area masking plans are still up in the air.

Youngkin’s order goes into effect on Monday, Jan. 24. However, with the recent surge in COVID cases, school divisions now face a difficult decision.

“Doing this when we have the highest case counts since the beginning of the pandemic and doing it at a time when local hospitals are canceling procedures because they are full and they are overwhelmed with patients, is that the right time?” said Dr. Oskar Scheikl, superintendent of Rockingham County Public Schools.

The Rockingham County School Board will discuss mask requirements at its upcoming meeting on Monday. The board will consider a number of factors before making a decision.

“If masks become optional what does that mean for quarantine rules? Likely that may mean we need to go back to 10 days because the five-day quarantine is only supported if masks are worn,” said Dr. Scheikl.

Further complicating issues for school divisions is a law passed last year by the General Assembly which states schools must follow the current CDC guidance which currently includes masks in schools.

“The General Assembly has said you need to follow CDC guidance. The governor has said it’s a parent choice, and ultimately the Constitution gives the power to school boards, so that’s the conversation and that’s why it gets complicated,” said Dr. Scheikl.

Scheikl said the goal is to eventually return to optional masking, but it has to be done in a way that will ensure safety for the students, especially at a time when case counts in the community are high.

“We need to have that conversation. There has to be that light at the end of the tunnel. What does it take for masks to be optional? What’s fair?” he said. “Because we have to protect kids. We have kids with auto-immune disorders. We have adults who are high-risk and we have kids who are high risk.”

Many parents have spoken out against mask mandates throughout the year and Dr. Scheikl said while he knows masks in schools are unpopular, the division is focused on being able to keep children in school and not in quarantine.

“If ultimately people feel like now they’ve won and masks may be optional but then more kids have to stay home that really wouldn’t be winning, that would simply be detrimental to children and that’s what we want people to understand, we’re trying to keep as many children in the building as possible,” he said.

Elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley, Staunton City Schools announced on Tuesday that it will continue to require students and staff to wear masks in school buildings.

Augusta County schools will continue to require masks for the moment but says it will provide an update to families later this week after the school board has had a chance to discuss the executive order and weigh its options.

Shenandoah County Public Schools decided it would be encouraged, but not required, for students to wear masks in the school building. Staff members are still required to wear masks.

The Page County school board will hold a meeting Wednesday to discuss their masking plans.

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