Surry School Board adopts mask mandate

Published 5:11 pm Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Surry County’s School Board voted unanimously Aug. 10 to make face masks mandatory for all children and adults during the 2021-2022 school year — even if they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The vote comes five days after Gov. Ralph Northam, at an Aug. 5 press conference, said a law the General Assembly passed earlier this year mandating schools be open five days a week also requires them to follow virus mitigation guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC currently recommends all students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools resume wearing masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, in light of a nationwide resurgence in new cases fueled by the more contagious delta variant.

The mask mandate applies to school buses as well. If a child comes to the bus stop without a mask, he or she will be provided one before being allowed to board the bus, Sims said.

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In addition to the mask mandate, the School Board adopted a number of additional precautions Superintendent Dr. Serbrenia Sims recommended, including daily temperature checks at school entrances and a requirement that students, when indoors, keep a distance of least 3-6 feet from each other whenever possible.

The 6-foot rule will apply to seating in school cafeterias, choir, band practice, indoor recess and physical education classes. In classrooms, social distancing will be enforced via assigned seating.

“I stand here today, fully vaccinated, but making sure that I’m at least 6 feet away when my mask is off,” Sims told the School Board at an Aug. 9 work session. “That will not even be a possibility when children are in classrooms.”

Assigned seating, Sims said, will allow the school system to be able to notify parents, with some level of confidence, whether their child is or isn’t likely to have been exposed to the virus should one of their classmates test positive for COVID-19.

“It’s not as it was before,” Sims said. “You cannot just come in and sit wherever you choose.”

The assigned seating rule will also apply to school buses and the cafeteria. In past school years, elementary, middle and high school students have all ridden together on the same buses — elementary in the front, middle school in the center and high school in the back. This year, siblings will sit in the same seat regardless of grade to facilitate social distancing between households.

The school system has received guidance from the Crater Health District, Sims said, that if everyone stays in their assigned seats and wears a mask, there is a possibility that not everyone in the classroom will have to quarantine for 14 days should a confirmed case of COVID-19 occur.

On Aug. 5, Surry County Public Schools announced on its Facebook page that two unvaccinated members of its high school football team had, in fact, tested positive for COVID-19.

“The players who are fully vaccinated are out there playing on the field or practicing on the field today,” Sims said.

The ones who are unvaccinated, but so far haven’t tested positive, are being made to quarantine for two weeks.

Sims promised “open disclosure” if and when additional COVID-19 cases occur.

“We’re going to pick up that telephone and call every one of the parents” of students who’ve potentially been exposed, she said. “If you do not receive a phone call, that’s simply because your child was not identified. So, last year, that was one of the difficult points that we had with Surry County being as small as it is. Rumors spread quickly.”

Being able to accurately inform the Crater Health District of which students are and are not likely to have been exposed, Sims said, will also help public health officials make the call as to whether a particular school building needs to be closed during an outbreak.

“The Crater Health District makes those decisions for us,” Sims said. “We are required then to call every child and every parent of every child who might have been exposed, and then the Crater Health District will tell us what we need to do. So it’s not my decision … the School Board or any other principal’s decision. It’s not even the nurse’s decision. Those decisions are made by the Crater Health District.”

Surry has also converted its water fountains to bottle-filling stations and added a social/emotional health curriculum called “rethink Ed” for grades 3-12 to address the psychological impacts of the pandemic.

The School Board even voted to implement a few additional policies that had not been included in Sims’ Aug. 9 presentation — namely pertaining to field trips, visitors and athletics. According to the adopted 2021-2022 SCPS Teaching and Health Mitigation Plan, field trips are allowed to resume as long as SCPS COVID-19 protocols are followed. Visitors must also have their temperature taken upon entering a school building and wear a mask, and Virginia High School League competitions are to follow the home team’s school division health practices, including masking.