IW School Board won’t revote on masks

Published 5:07 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Isle of Wight County’s School Board will wait for a ruling from Virginia’s Supreme Court before revisiting its mask policy.

The School Board had voted 4-1 on Jan. 20 to continue its mask mandate, in defiance of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order leaving the choice to parents. Youngkin’s order rescinded Virginia’s universal K-12 mask mandate effective Jan. 24 and requires that parents be allowed to opt their children out of any school-imposed mask mandate, without needing to provide a reason.

That same week as Isle of Wight’s vote, 13 Chesapeake parents filed a lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to declare Youngkin’s order “void and unenforceable.”

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The lawsuit argues Youngkin “does not have the option of being unfaithful to laws with which he disagrees,” citing a 2021 state law that requires schools to provide in-person instruction to students in a manner that adheres to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance — which still recommends universal masking by all students ages 2 and older, teachers and visitors regardless of vaccination status.

Attorney General Jason Miyares has petitioned to dismiss the lawsuit, referring to the Chesapeake School Board’s action as an “independent decision to lift its mask mandate” that would make “whatever injury” the parents believe they have suffered “not fairly traceable” to Youngkin’s order.

“Nothing significant has happened that requires a new meeting or vote on the masks,” Isle of Wight School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes told attendees at a special Jan. 26 board meeting — which a number of parents attended, some carrying handmade signs reading “my children, my choice” and “revote now!”

The stated purpose of the special meeting was for the board to discuss its plans for replacing Westside Elementary School — not masks. District 1 board member John Collick had motioned to allow public comments at the start of the meeting, but the motion received no second.

The lack of a second from the board drew heckling from the audience. Tynes then warned that anyone who made another outburst would be asked to leave. After warning parent Laura Fletcher, who continued to heckle the board, that she was “out of order,” Tynes made good on her ultimatum, asking Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office deputies to escort Fletcher from the building.

Fletcher kept shouting as deputies led her from the room. According to Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Tommy Potter, no charges have been filed against her.

“I am not proud of how that happened,” Fletcher told The Smithfield Times on Jan. 31. “I did not intend for that to happen … I was angry, or maybe frustrated is a better word.”

Fletcher said she’d planned to ask whether the American Rescue Plan Act had created any financial incentives for schools to continue their mask mandates. The U.S. Department of Education released an interim rule last year mandating that school systems that receive ARPA funds develop “a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction” that includes “the extent to which it has adopted policies” on each of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, including the “universal and correct wearing of masks.”

When the deputy escorted her out, “he told me that I needed to leave the property and if I tried to come back, I would be arrested for trespassing,” Fletcher said.

She then asked the deputy if she could retrieve her purse from Westside’s auditorium and said he initially told her “no” but eventually went in himself and retrieved it for her.

The incident, Fletcher said, has made her “more determined” to attend and speak at future School Board meetings.

At the conclusion of the meeting, District 2 board member Michael Vines motioned to amend the agenda to permit public comments; the motion passed unanimously.

“Your vote goes directly against not only the executive order, but the updated guidance for the Virginia Department of Education, as well as the Virginia Department of Health,” said Tricia Williams, an IWCS teacher with two children in the school system.

Youngkin’s order directs his pick for Virginia’s new superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Barlow, to “rescind the Interim Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools” and “issue new guidance for COVID-19 Prevention consistent with this Order.” On Jan. 21, the VDH and VDOE jointly released new guidelines advising schools to “layer” strategies, including “testing programs, adequate or increased ventilation, ensuring appropriate hand hygiene opportunities, staying home when sick, supporting parents who choose to send their child to school with a mask, and regular cleaning and disinfecting.”

“We wouldn’t do anything that’s bad for our kids … we’re asking you to give our choice back to us,” said Tatiana Turner, who identified herself as the mother of two children at Hardy Elementary School.

“My son died six years ago, not COVID-related,” said David Adams. “I truly have empathy for anyone that loses a child, but what about those children who have mental health issues as a result of what’s happening during this pandemic? Please stop. This is no longer about a virus … this is politics and we’re using our children as weapons in that war.”

The Rev. Willie Williams, however, thanked the board for keeping the mandate in place.

“I’ve got four grandchildren in the Isle of Wight County school system, and I don’t want my children infected because some parent says, ‘I’m exercising my rights,’” Williams said. “What about my child’s rights? … I don’t even want to hear it anymore.”

“We will revisit or reconvene once the Virginia Supreme Court comes with new actions,” Tynes said.

Virginia issued its universal K-12 mask mandate in August amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. Youngkin’s order rescinding the statewide mandate describes the newer omicron variant as “less severe,” a statement with which the CDC’s morbidity and mortality weekly report now agrees.

The CDC reports omicron has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 nationwide, with the variant accounting for 99.5% of sequenced viral specimens as of Jan. 15. Of the 866,675 Americans who have died of COVID-19 from the beginning of the pandemic through Jan. 22, 883, or 0.1%, were ages 0-18, according to CDC data.

The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 nationwide is still well above the peak of last year’s delta wave — though the number has fallen from the record-breaking pediatric hospitalizations seen the first week of January. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, roughly 10% of children who contract COVID-19 may also develop “long COVID-19,” a term referring to symptoms ranging from heart palpitations to “brain fog” that can persist for months after the original infection.