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IW schools plan to make masks optional

Isle of Wight County Schools plans to make masks optional for the 2021-2022 school year.

A nationwide COVID-19 resurgence fueled by the more contagious delta variant prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools resume wearing masks indoors — even if they’re vaccinated. But Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton considers the risk of an in-school outbreak to be minimal.

“Last year during the pandemic, without any vaccination, the only spread we had in school was, I believe it was the football team and the girls volleyball team at Windsor High School,” Thornton told Isle of Wight’s School Board at a July 28 work session.

Isle of Wight was one of only two Hampton Roads school divisions to open their doors to students in September 2020. A new state law passed earlier this year now mandates all Virginia public schools offer in-person instruction “for at least the minimum number of required instructional hours” in the coming school year, though parents can still choose to keep their children home and enroll them in online classes through Virtual Virginia.

The law allows schools to temporarily revert to virtual learning should an in-school COVID-19 outbreak occur.

“If we do have some sort of outbreak … we do have liberty to say, ‘OK, we need to mask up until we get through this period of time,’” Thornton said.

But Isle of Wight won’t be making its students and staff undergo COVID-19 testing or disclose their vaccination status.

Thornton said the state hasn’t released clear guidance as to whether schools can ask students or staff if they’ve been vaccinated.

“That could violate HIPAA rights,” he said, referring to a privacy rule in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that protects all “individually identifiable health information.”

Some school divisions are looking to mitigate the risk of in-person learning amid the surge in variants by mandating that students and staff be tested, Thornton said, but, “I am not recommending that we test any students or personnel.”

Schools won’t necessarily be enforcing social distancing either.

“This physical distancing, now they’re saying it doesn’t have to be six feet, it can be three feet, and then they’re saying it can be less than three feet if you have to because the state has passed a law that you have to have in-person learning if people want it this school year,” Thornton said. “So, if everyone comes back and your classrooms can’t be three feet apart, you’re less than three feet … I do think this topic is very, very political and it keeps flip-flopping.”

But per federal law, masks are still required on any form of public transportation, to include school buses.

“I don’t have a problem with parent choice … but we need to make sure that the parents understand that if their child is going to participate in public transportation, meaning riding our school buses, they must wear a mask, because somebody’s going to argue the fact, ‘No, they said it was my choice,’” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Denise Tynes.

The School Board will formally vote on its mask policy at its Aug. 12 meeting, which will be held in the boardroom of the Isle of Wight County Courthouse Complex. The meeting will begin with a closed session at 5 p.m., followed by an open session starting at 6 p.m.