Surry schools plan for optional masking – with a catch

Published 9:47 am Thursday, February 17, 2022

Surry County’s School Board, on Feb. 8, approved a plan to eventually make masks optional for students.

Per the board’s vote, students will be allowed to remove their masks only if the county’s COVID-19 transmission stays below an 8% positivity rate for at least one month.

Surry’s positivity was at 15.28% as of Feb. 16, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The CDC continues to recommend universal indoor masking for all students age 2 and up, staff and visitors to K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.

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According to Superintendent Dr. Serbrenia Sims, even if Surry’s positivity drops to a point where the School Board’s plan would allow masks to become optional, students would still have to wear them on any form of public transportation, including school buses per federal law.

In a Feb. 15 letter, Sims informs parents that Surry still plans to mandate masks — even if the universal mandate ends — in areas where social distancing cannot be maintained, such as hallways, computer labs, indoor student dances, assemblies and graduation ceremonies. Parents, she said, are to be responsible for communicating mask expectations to their children, as school personnel “will not assume responsibility for mask enforcement.”

Masks for all employees and visitors will remain mandatory “until further notice,” Sims writes.

Surry’s vote came eight days prior to the passage of a new state law effectively abolishing school mask mandates statewide, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed on Feb. 16.

The law, which originated as Senate Bill 739, allows parents to opt their children out of any mask mandate imposed by a public school, without needing to provide a reason, and prohibits schools from taking disciplinary action against students who choose not to wear masks. Three state Senate Democrats joined with Republicans in supporting the bill, which then passed the Republican-controlled House of Delegates in a 52-48 vote on Feb. 14. At Youngkin’s request, an emergency clause was added allowing the law to take effect immediately rather than on July 1. The provision gives school systems until March 1 to comply.