Henrico Schools requiring masking indoors regardless of vaccination status

Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 8:07 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2021 at 2:00 PM EDT
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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - In a unanimous vote Thursday, the Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) board affirmed universal masking indoors for students and staff come the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

This decision comes after a recommendation by the HCPS Health Committee during a work session Thursday afternoon, and roughly an hour and a half before Governor Ralph Northam issued a mask mandate.

I feel really relieved,” said Henrico parent Brittany Rose. Rose joined a handful of other parents and teachers pushing for universal masking ahead of Thursday’s school board work session.

“We’re here to keep our schools safe, that includes students and staff,” said Patrick Miller, President of the Henrico Education Association.

The school board moved the topic to the top of the agenda with the health committee breaking down the number of changes on a local, state and federal level over the last two weeks.

That timeline is as follows:

  • July 21: Virginia Department of Education, Virginia Department of Health announce each local school division will determine how they implement COVID-19 prevention
  • July 25: Virginia’s Public Health order expires, requiring masks in schools
  • July 27: HCPS sends email to families strongly encouraging mask-wearing in schools, but leaves it as an option
  • CDC releases new recommendations that afternoon urging universal masking for students and staff regardless of vaccination status
  • Aug. 2: HCPS Health Committee meets to review health data and guidance. COVID-19 community transmission increased from “moderate” to “substantial”
  • Aug. 9: HCPS Health Committee holds another meeting

“In one weeks time, Henrico had reached the higher level of community transmission,” said Dr. Beth Teigen, Chief of Staff for Henrico Schools.

“This is fluid, we’re hearing that word a lot,” said Varina District board member Alicia Atkins. “We’re making decisions in the moments based on information that we have that we’re trying to project out.”

Thursday the HCPS school board voted 4-0 to make mask wearing a requirement indoors; Michelle Ogburn was not in attendance at the meeting due to a family emergency, but also gave her support.

“That makes me feel good,” Miller said. “That makes me feel much safer at my job.”

“While we know that masks alone cannot stop pandemics, we know they help mitigate them,” Atkins said. “We also know it takes a layered approach not just at school but also at home.”

Mask break periods will be implemented throughout the day, according to school leaders.

Meanwhile, the school system will continue with previous mitigation strategies inside schools including social distancing of at least 3-feet, frequent cleaning and access to plexiglass shields.

“This is not a school effort, this is not a county effort, this is a nation effort, and it really does take everyone working together,” Atkins said. “I’m hopeful that we can look at masks as a way that doesn’t divide us but unite us.”

However, the school board approved this policy under the notion the health committee will consistently review data and guidance to see if any changes can be made if the mask mandate from the state is rolled back.

“I hope that sometime this school year we’ll be back to a point where people can go without masks,” Rose said. “So, I think it is appropriate to revisit this because the situation is changing.”

Meanwhile, the HCPS Health Committee also released information on how students and staff would quarantine if exposed to COVID-19.

“Vaccination status can significantly reduce or eliminate quarantine time,” a school official said.

While the school system is not requiring testing of individuals, if someone is feeling sick or experiencing COVID-like symptoms, you’re asked to stay home.

During high transmission levels in the county, employees or students with symptoms will be asked to quarantine for 10 days. Once transmission lowers, school staff said it would look into reducing quarantine time to 24 hours without any symptoms or medication.

“Individuals who are fully vaccinated… the use of a mask can significantly reduce quarantine time if exposure occurs,” a school official said. “Based on currently contact tracing protocols, wearing a mask can generally avoid quarantine protocols. Staff and students who are fully vaccinated and haven’t experienced symptoms for more than 24 hours, would not have to quarantine if exposed to a person with COVID-19.”

If a student is required to quarantine, classwork will be sent home. Additionally, if a teacher is asked to quarantine, they would have to do so with their own sick time.

Meanwhile, school board members questioned whether the rise in COVID-19 cases could potentially shutdown schools division wide.

“We have other protocols in place which is used in other communicable diseases… should we need to close down a classroom, grade level or even possibly a school,” Teigen said. “Closing at the division level, no, that would require a mandate from the Virginia Department of Education.”

Henrico’s decision also comes after more than 1,000 parents and teachers signed an online petition advocating for universal masking. The only exceptions will be for a person that has a documented or religious reason.

Student head back to school on Sept. 8.

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