POWHATAN – A day after Powhatan County Public Schools announced on Aug. 9 that masks will be required for students and staff when the new school year begins, the issue was a hot topic at the school board meeting.
The issue of masks wasn’t actually a scheduled topic of discussion on the Aug. 10 meeting’s agenda. It was the focus of the majority of comments made by people who spoke to the board in the public comment period, several of whom expressed confusion or anger about why the board didn’t vote on or discuss it in the meeting. Of the 16 residents who spoke throughout the night, 13 focused most of their comments on opposing a mask mandate.
Only at the end of the meeting during the board comment period did members address the topic, making clear that had the issue been brought forward for a vote, it likely would have been a 3-1 decision in favor of requiring masks with only Susan Smith, who represents District 2, voting against it. However, no formal vote was ever made.
In August 2020, the school board voted on the Return to Learn Plan. At that time they acknowledged that quick decisions about operating schools during the pandemic would have to be made in a timely manner and that those decisions should be made administratively and shared with the school board, said Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent. Administrators were still acting under that direction when they made the decision to follow the school board attorney’s advice to require masks because of a new state law (see story 1A).
During the board comments, Smith and Rick Cole, District 1, were the most vocal on the issue, although on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Had the board taken a vote, Smith said she would have requested that PCPS stay with masks as optional. She argued that masks in school have been used as a political manipulation tool and that the decision should be made on the local level. She hoped that PCPS, like some other school divisions in the state, would keep masks optional despite the governor’s Aug. 5 announcement.
Smith quoted other individuals who have argued masks are not effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 but stating they have had a negative social and emotional impact on students and teachers. She said it is a wrong statement to put out that the school division is “encouraging the vaccine when we don’t even know that it is a real vaccine. It is just a shot. It is not the same as a polio or smallpox vaccine. It has no live viruses within that vaccine.”
“I want the people in District 2 to know that I did not vote for this masking of our children. After countless materials that I have read, I cannot and do not believe it is in the health interest of our students and our staff to mandate masks. Giving people a choice is the best thing for our students and our parents,” Smith said.
Cole acknowledged it is the school board’s job to lead, but they also took an oath to follow the laws of Virginia. He said his mandate is to listen to everybody, but in the end his decision is to do what he believes is right to protect the health and well-being of most of the community.
“I have listened to both sides of this mask mandate now for several months, and I know that … whatever decision we ended up with, there were going to be people that weren’t happy. That is OK. That is the nature of the business. … We are not going to make everybody happy because some people truly think masks are important. Some people don’t think they are important. The bottom line is kids under the age of 12 don’t have a choice about the vaccine. They are pretty much unprotected,” Cole said.
Neither Chairwoman Kim Hymel, District 5, and Valarie Ayers, District 3, made a strong statement about masks in their comments. They both said it was their understanding the mask policy changed because they listened to the school board attorney and were following the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendations.
Jones reiterated that Senate Bill 1303 says that they have to follow CDC guidelines to the extent practical, and PCPS showed last year that masks were practical and doable. He said he and many others were looking forward to having masks optional, but when they checked with the school board attorney, it was made clear following the law meant requiring masks.
“That decision then was taken out of our hands. I hope at some point it is given back to us so that we can make another decision that may fit our community better,” Jones said.
While the mask issue wasn’t an agenda item, it was the most popular topic among speakers. The 13 who spoke against requiring masks were largely angry and frustrated. They questioned why the board never took an official vote on the decision. They threatened to or informed the school board of their decision to homeschool their children or put them in private school. They talked about numerous studies that have shown masks are not effective protection against viruses unless they are N95 masks.
Other arguments against masks mandates raised by residents included: the low number of positive cases in Powhatan County; the social, emotional, and physical harm masks are doing to children; the low risk children are at for catching COVID-19; asking the school board to stand up against the governor; talking about the moments that are being stolen from their children; talking about how the masks are being used as a political tool to control people; saying his is a slippery slope toward forced vaccinations; arguing that there are other lawyers who disagree that the new state law means schools have to require masks; talking about the way masks have been used in the past to dehumanize and control people, and outright stating their students would be going to school without a mask when school starts.