CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Chesterfield County Public School Board voted three to two to keep the county's school mask mandate in place for now.
The majority of board members said they wanted to wait for the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE)to offer guidance on how to handle mask-optional issues like quarantining and contact tracing for students and staff.
In a Facebook post after the meeting, CCPS said it "will not be changing our current mitigation strategies including requiring masks until the Superintendent of Public Instruction issues new guidance to school divisions and we can review and determine appropriate implementation."
When that guidance was issued, the board would reconvene to discuss and vote.
The special afternoon meeting was called so board members could vote on whether or not the district would follow Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order Two, which would allow parents to decide whether or not their child wears a mask to school.
Several members indicated they wanted to remove the mask mandate but said they wanted to wait for an item promised in Directive Five of the order.
It stated "[t]he Superintendent of Public Instruction shall rescind the Interim Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools, issued January 14, 2021, and updated October 14, 2021, and issue new guidance for COVID-19 Prevention consistent with this Order."
"There are too many logistics still unknown. I want to be very clear, I do intend and want to follow through with the Governor's Executive Order Number Two when these guidelines are released by the new Superintendent of Public Instruction," said Board Chair and Bermuda District Member Ann Coker. "To Governor Youngkin, we are asking for your help. Help us follow your executive order by giving us the appropriate guidance from COVID mitigation strategies to OSHA requirements, contact tracing, quarantine guidelines and etc. We need appropriate guidelines to effectively and legally roll out your executive order in our school system."
"We need the state superintendent of instruction to give us the guidance that we have asked for, that has been promised before we move forward," added Dale District Member Debbie Bailey. "I wish the Governor had had this in place prior to his executive order. School systems need the information to be able to properly follow the order. How do we handle contact tracing, quarantining and other procedural and operational concerns once parents have a choice to send their students to school without masks? I do not want to rush forward with the decision to only have to walk back promises that we can't keep."
As a result of the vote, the board said once the new guidance has been issued they would revisit the issue. The next scheduled board meeting is on Feb. 8
In response to the Order, some school districts have said they would keep their mandates in place, like Richmond Public Schools, while others, like Powhatan County Public Schools. Meanwhile, a group of parents in Chesapeake have filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court of Virginia challenging the order.
Thursday's CCPS meeting did not feature any public comment period, but online comments were accepted ahead of time and schools officials said they had received 2,345 comments taking up 256 pages before the cut-off time.
"We understand that we have many different opinions on this topic in our community," said Coker.
Instead, each board member spoke about their outlook on the issue before a brief discussion prior to the vote. While Coker and Bailey expressed a desire to revisit the issue once the guidance from VDOE has been released, other members mentioned wanting to take guidance from local medical experts.
"I acknowledge that we need an off-ramp and I look forward to upcoming guidance that will get us there. I would suggest that we look to School Health Advisory Board [SHAB] members, the SHAB committee for help as needed," said Midlothian District Member Kathryn Haines. She added that 16 of the board's 20 members sent a letter to the school board, which she later posted the text of to Facebook, asking them not to remove the mask policy until the current surge is over and no sooner than Feb. 1. "We need to invite the experts that were present at our August 10 school board meeting, [Chesterfield Health District Director] Dr. Samuel and risk management to a future meeting to help us understand how to best honor the intent of Executive Order Number Two without violating Senate Bill 1303."
Senate Bill 1303 was brought up by several members during their comments.
Passed during the 2021 Special Session, it requires students to provide in-person learning and must follow CDC COVID mitigation guidelines to the “maximum extent practicable” when schools are open during the pandemic. Right now, the CDC lists universal indoor masking as a recommendation for schools.
"It'd be pretty hard to convince me that universal masking in our schools is impracticable as we have successfully implemented this practice for nearly two years. Now, the executive order notwithstanding, now is just simply not the time to have classrooms full of children, some vaccinated some not without masks on," said Vice-Chair and Clover Hill District Member Dot Heffron, who added CCPS' existing policy was clear and she stood behind it. "We will review mask requirements when our superintendent in consultation with the director of the Chesterfield Health District recommends action to our board."
"Some claimed the legislation to be in conflict with Executive Order Number Two. Senate Bill 1303, according to one of the co-authors, Sen. [Siobhan] Dunnavant, it was intended to be a roadmap to get our children back in school as soon as possible and ensure that schools stayed open. Senate Bill 1303 does not mandate the use of masks in school. Because the CDC does not mandate mask, the CDC recommends mask," said Bailey, in reference to Sen. Dunnavant's statement on the intent of her bill. "I believe the risk of COVID-19 to children does not justify the universal masking in school. I believe parents, children, and teachers should be permitted to make informed decisions based on their own values and risk tolerance and choose to mask or not."
Matoaca District member Ryan Harter was the only board member who did not mention a need to await further guidance, regardless of the source, before lifting the current mask requirement.
"Even with vaccines, boosters, and other mitigation factors, people are still testing positive. The reality is -- this virus is going to be with us for some time, we need to begin to live again," said Harter. "We all want the best for our children, and we all want to make the right decision for them. We all have the constitutional right to do that. We should all advocate for them. But we also must respect that other people's personal decisions may not align with ours."
Harter also raised the question of what will happen in schools next week when the Executive Order takes effect.
"This emergency order was directed to parents. It gives parents the right to choose what is best for the shop. If thousands of kids come back possibly with no masks on Monday -- what are we going to do? How is a staff going to confront that? Are we going to ask our staff to confront parents if they choose to have their child wear a mask or not wear a mask?" added Harter. "After this Executive Order takes effect masking is…no longer a practicable strategy. How would this be an effective mitigation strategy if a large number of the population is not wearing masks."
Some parents believe the county should continue to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation to wear masks in school buildings, while other parents said it was time for them to decide what’s best for their own children.
"I'm very frustrated with the way they handled this," Jeff Layne, who has a child at James River High School, said. "In August, they made a decision to move forward [with masks] and they made their decision based on a government executive order. It didn't take long to implement it. And now all of a sudden, the new governor comes in, and when the masks and all the other mitigation strategies they've been implementing, have not been successful in keeping cases down and all that to keep counting cases, instead of hospitalizations, and deaths and all that. I am absolutely frustrated with the whole thing."
Christine Melendez, who leads the Chesterfield Education Association, said she was pleased with the outcome of Thursday's vote.
"We're very thankful that our school board was methodical, process-driven, and is not going against the executive order. They're just waiting for further guidance, as is stated in the executive order," she said.
She said she understood once the VDOE guidance was received, the board could vote again to allow students to remove masks in class.
"We realize that when that guidance may be available, we may be in a dip [in cases]. But we also are aware that there's going to be a rise once again," she said. "And just understanding what happens, understanding what expectations are of staff, when those things do occur. And really just listening to how staff feels most safe. That's the one thing that we want to keep in the forefront when making decisions. Because without staff, the schools cannot function. And without schools, their students will be at home again. And that is something that we as educators and that parents and that everybody in our community wants to avoid."
Despite the board's vote, Layne said he intended to send his child to school Monday without a mask.
"He will attend on Monday without his mask on. And if they throw him out of school, I'll be in court with him," he said. "I don't believe the mask works. I'm just thinking it's a control mechanism. It's not a science mechanism."
Chesterfield Schools have reported more than 1,000 positive COVID test results among students (1.52% of the student population) and staff (1.92% of staff) over the last seven days.
CBS 6 has reached out to Youngkin's office and the Virginia Department of Education and asked when the guidance mentioned in the executive order would be released and is waiting to hear back.