CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — After a 3-2 decision by the Chesterfield County School Board Tuesday night, students no longer have to wear a mask in class. But the new optional mask policy has some teachers planning to call out of work Thursday.
Christine Melendez, president of the Chesterfield Education Association (CEA), said she’s heard from several teachers who won’t be at work Thursday because they’re concerned for their health.
"The majority of feedback that I personally have heard and received is fear and a big feeling of disrespect from our employer," Melendez explained. "I've received so many communications of people who are working on their resumes, who feel like they won't even make it to the end of the school year, and who want to leave the teaching profession entirely."
Melendez noted she's also heard from some teachers who said they won't cover vacancies in their buildings during their planning periods.
"They don't want to be exposed to students who may be not only unvaccinated, but who may even potentially be carrying the virus unknowingly," said Melendez. "I know of at least one school that has 16 instructional vacancies on top of any absences that are due to illness or anything else. And so that school is regularly being asked to cover for those 16 vacancies, in addition to their colleagues who are out, and these teachers are very burnt out."
Melendez sent CBS 6 a screenshot of an email sent from one Chesterfield school administrator to staff Wednesday night that stated teachers are not the mask police, and should not offer a mask to students not wearing one.
That email also said teachers can not separate students based on whether or not they are wearing a mask, and if teachers are concerned about exposure, they can teach from their six-foot "bubble" — but they can’t leave that bubble to help a masked student and not help an unmasked student.
Meanwhile, there are some Chesterfield staff members who do support making masks optional.
Stephen Roszel, who was fired from Chesterfield last year for not complying with the mask policy, thinks the county made the right decision in allowing parent choice.
"I find it really sad in this country, and in this Commonwealth of Virginia, that we are actually having a discussion about parental choice and medical freedom when it comes to wearing a piece of cloth," said Roszel. “We're at a position now where those that supported following the executive orders of the previous administration now say that executive orders are bad and we can't follow them because it's a different administration."
The CEA made a formal request to the district on Monday asking them to keep the mask mandate and to make more testing and KN95 masks available for students and staff.
Just last night, the district sent out guidance stating there are KN95 masks available at all schools, as well as 40,000 masks in reserve that can be utilized if needed.
The district also noted they’ve now started to receive testing kits from the Virginia Department of Health and are in the process of distributing them to schools.
Right now, there are more than 200 teacher vacancies in Chesterfield County, according to the CEA, and Melendez fears the teacher shortage could soon get worse.
"Students will continue to suffer from losing highly-qualified, very well educated teachers who are not being treated well in this profession, and who know their worth, and are going to try to go find a job that will value them a little bit more than this, even if it may not be their passion, or their calling," said Melendez. "But they know that they don't deserve to be treated like this."
Students still have to wear a mask on the bus because a federal health order remains in effect.
School staff are still required to wear masks because Youngkin’s executive order only addresses students.