Surry schools keep mask mandate

Published 5:10 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Surry County Public Schools will continue requiring students to stay masked, despite Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order leaving the choice to parents.

The Jan. 15 order repealed Virginia’s universal K-12 mask mandate effective Jan. 24, and requires that parents be allowed to opt their children out of any school-imposed mask mandate,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.

Surry’s School Board voted 4-0 with one abstention at a special Jan. 27 meeting to keep its mask mandate — becoming the latest Virginia school system to defy the order. Dendron District board member Faye Perkins was the abstaining vote.

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The vote followed a nearly hour-long town hall meeting at Luther Porter Jackson Middle School where a number of parents — speaking in person and commenting virtually as the meeting was streamed live on social media — argued for and against keeping the mandate.

“As a parent we all know that when our children go to school they get sick … I know I don’t and my children should not have to wear masks forever,” said Sarah Brooks Santens. “As a parent it should be a choice. We should all have the choice. You can wear your mask but let others choose not to wear a mask.”

“The best analogy I’ve heard is comparing this to drunk driving,” said Dan Cook. “Yes, I can choose to drive sober, which will help my own safety. But it doesn’t do much if everyone else is driving drunk. We all need to be in this together.”

“What happens when the decision is made to remove (the mandate) and those who have concerns for their health, maybe teachers, decide their health takes priority over coming into the schools to teach, and there are no teachers to teach the children?” asked Lynette Newby. “Who wins with this situation?”

“To the teachers … please feel free to find a new job,” said Bobby Gleason. “I’m not fond of fire. So I didn’t become a firefighter. If you can’t handle a high-risk area then remove yourself from it and get replaced by those who don’t mind.”

While Surry’s mask mandate will remain in place, the School Board did modify other components of the school system’s health mitigation plan. Specifically, the board removed the daily temperature checks and reduced the number of days students and staff exposed to COVID-19 need to stay home to align with the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

The CDC, as of Jan. 13, is advising exposed students and staff to quarantine for at least five days from the date of their last close contact with a COVID-19-positive person, or, should they test positive themselves, to isolate for at least five days past the date of their positive test or when symptoms began.

The School Board also directed Superintendent Dr. Serbrenia Sims to put together a committee of Surry County stakeholders to draft a plan that will specify when it is safe to end the mask mandate.

Isle of Wight County Schools is also keeping its mask mandate despite Youngkin’s order.

A lawsuit filed by 13 Chesapeake parents asks Virginia’s Supreme Court to declare the order “void and unenforceable.” The court has not yet ruled.

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 CDC 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 parents’ suit, arguing even if the court finds the parents have “alleged sufficient facts to establish a cognizable injury” the Chesapeake School Board’s “independent decision to lift its mask mandate means that whatever injury petitioners believe they have suffered is not fairly traceable” to Youngkin’s order.