Chesterfield school leaders vote to keep universal masking in schools, for now

Published: Jan. 20, 2022 at 5:11 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 21, 2022 at 6:02 AM EST
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CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WWBT) - During a special meeting on Thursday afternoon, the Chesterfield County School Board voted 3-2 to uphold its current mask requirement at schools for the moment. But the board wishes to revisit the policy once they receive more guidance from the Virginia Department of Education and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction on how to operationally transition to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order, which gives parents a choice on whether or not they would like their child to wear a mask in school.

Under Gov. Youngkin’s executive order, one of the items includes the State Superintendent of Public Instruction issuing “new guidance for COVID-19 Prevention consistent with this Order.”

Debbie Bailey, who represents the Dale District on the Chesterfield County School Board, pushed for school board leaders to wait until they receive further guidelines from VDOE on how to “operationally” move forward with the governor’s executive order, which includes updates to COVID-19 preventions measures like contact tracing and quarantine guidelines.

“Governor Youngkin gave us one week, one week to get operational on a whole new executive order,” said Bailey. “My preference is to get the guidance, let our staff work with it, make sure everything, all ducks in a row in place, so that we’re successful.”

Bailey, along with Chair Ann Coker and Kathryn Haines, who represents the Midlothian District, voted in favor of the motion.

Bailey also voiced her support for having parents make choices regarding masking but wants to see the guidelines in place from the governor’s order.

“Parents, you have a choice, and you will have a choice,” she said. “It’s just the timeline is a little aggressive.”

Vice-Chair Dot Heffron and Ryan Harter, who represents the Matoaca District, voted down the motion.

Heffron believes the safety of their students and staff should be the top priority.

“We’re all ready and eager to welcome the time when masks and all the other COVID mitigation strategies we’ve been practicing are in the rearview mirror. Now is not that time,” Heffron said. “While I’ve read the governor’s executive order, I find it problematic on many fronts and feel it should not be our guiding document as this board continues to navigate the school division through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, Harter believes masking should also be a choice.

“The order does not forbid anyone from wearing a mask. It is everyone’s choice, and it’s your right to do so,” said Harter. “People are responsible for their own safety and health decisions.”

Coker also voiced her intent on following Gov. Youngkin’s executive order, but is asking for more guidance to do so.

“We need appropriate guidelines to effectively and legally roll out your executive order in our school system,” said Coker. “We eagerly await your department’s guidance and are open to having a discussion with you and your team on how to follow your executive order.”

During the meeting, Haines discussed the biggest concern she’s heard from parents.

“Families have reached out to me asking that their child not be placed next to an unmasked student on Monday, January 24, because their family can’t risk quarantine,” said Haines.

The special meeting was also met with a flood of online responses from the Chesterfield community. School board members received 2,345 comments from those who want to keep the mask mandate in place and those who wish the school board to follow Gov. Youngkin’s order and make it optional.

After the decision was made, Christine Melendez, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, said she was pleased with the decision.

“We’re really thankful that the school board sided on the side of safety and health first,” she said. “Really, just listening to how staff feels most safe. That’s the one thing we want to keep in the forefront when making decisions.”

However, Jeff Layne, a Chesterfield parent with a child who attends James River High School, was frustrated by how the school board handled the vote.

“I don’t believe the masks work for one thing,” he said. “He [Layne’s son] will attend Monday without his mask on, and if they throw him out of school, I’ll be in court with him.”

In August, Chesterfield board members voted unanimously to pass a universal mask requirement at schools based on guidance from the CDC.

Once the school board receives this guidance, they will revisit the policy and meet again for another vote.

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