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Northam administration mandates masks in schools after some local leaders reject CDC guidance
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Northam administration mandates masks in schools after some local leaders reject CDC guidance

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Community members gather to protest a mask mandate at the Chesterfield School Board

The administration of Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday mandated that all K-12 schools in the state require masks for students and teachers, less than a week after saying a state law already rendered them compulsory.

The order from state Health Commissioner Norman Oliver overrules recent decisions from several school boards — including in Hanover County — rendering masks optional. Those decisions defied guidance from Northam’s office and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Northam administration had insisted there was no need for executive action since a state law signed in the spring that requires schools to offer in-person instruction directs school districts to follow CDC guidelines to the “maximum extent practicable.”

The CDC’s guidance has fluctuated rapidly amid a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in Virginia and across the country, fueled largely by the highly contagious delta variant and lagging vaccination rates among those hesitant to take shots or struggling to access them.

Republican leaders in Virginia, who had forcefully opposed the state’s mask mandate at a time when vaccines were not available, on Thursday decried Northam’s new order. GOP nominee for governor Glenn Youngkin said the decision showed Democratic leaders intend to “take away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for our kids.”

State Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, issued a statement taking issue with the “characterization” of Senate Bill 1303, which they co-sponsored, as a mask mandate.

“His unpredictable and erratic decrees have created conflict and anxiety where school boards had mostly worked out the best approach for their communities,” stated Dunnavant, referring to Northam. “CDC guidance changes frequently and parents and schools are perfectly capable of following and adapting without threats and reversals by the Governor.”

“The entire purpose of the bill was to give local School Boards flexibility in adopting mitigation strategies,” Petersen added. “This simply compounds the culture of Executive overreach which dates back to March 2020, when the Governor ordered the schools to close in violation of the State Constitution.”

The Northam administration defended the new mandate as a way to ensure “uniformity across all school districts.”

“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” Northam said in a statement Thursday of the mandate, which requires anyone 2 and older to wear masks indoors at public and private K-12 schools.

Local decisions

Local decisions on masking have been polarizing in a season of high-volume debate among parents with vastly different world views.

In the Richmond area, Hanover voted down a mandate. The cities of Richmond and Hopewell and Chesterfield County all decided to require masks. Henrico County reversed course to join the group Thursday ahead of Oliver’s order.

Just two weeks ago, on the day the CDC released guidance for everyone in K-12 settings to wear masks, Henrico school officials had declined to issue a mandate to “respect that mask-wearing is currently an individual choice.” Teachers rallied ahead of Thursday’s meeting to ask that they reconsider, which they ultimately did within hours of Northam’s order.

Hanover’s appointed School Board on Tuesday overruled Superintendent Michael Gill’s recommendations and voted 4-3 against requiring masks, which the CDC says effectively reduce transmission of the potentially lethal virus. The decision surprised school officials and left administrators and some parents grappling with what to do less than a month before classes begin.

However, in response to the mask order by the state, a note to Hanover parents late Thursday afternoon said it was effective immediately for all students, staff and visitors. It said Thursday’s order is similar to another emergency order requiring masks in schools earlier this year and pledged to have more specifics soon.

A universal mask mandate goes beyond what Gill recommended earlier this week, which was mandatory masks for elementary students — he noted that children 5 to 11 cannot yet be vaccinated — as well as middle and high school students and all staff who weren’t vaccinated.

Gill presented his plan to a packed boardroom that broke into boos and angry shouting at times during a meeting that stretched late into the evening and featured more than an hour of public comments, mostly from those opposed to the masks, which at one point prompted the entire School Board to recess and leave the room.

Upon returning, board member John Axselle scolded the audience members for their behavior, saying that he was “shocked” by what he saw that night and that in 25 years on the board, he had never felt compelled to leave the boardroom. Axselle later moved to make masks optional, saying there was little data to show that Hanover needed such a mandate. He was supported by board members Steve Ikenberry, Sterling Daniel and George Sutton.

Board Chairwoman Ola Hawkins, who signed the note to parents on Thursday; Vice Chair Robert Hundley; and board member Bob May voted against the motion.

Also Tuesday night, Chesterfield’s School Board was picketed by families opposed to a mandate. The board ultimately voted in favor of the requirement.

Meanwhile, Richmond, where masks have always been universal, will weigh a decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for staff. Superintendent Jason Kamras has said he expects the School Board to approve the mandate. In Henrico, Robin Gilbert, who heads school health for the district, said it’s been discussed, but the Henrico Health Committee does not have plans to mandate vaccines for staff or students.

Positive cases

There have been 424 COVID-19 outbreaks in K-12 schools across the state since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health, which lists significantly higher numbers of outbreaks among other institutions, such as assisted living facilities.

Richmond Public Schools has seen around 250 quarantines since July, many related to summer programs. At the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, a charter school that is part of RPS but governed by its own board, all 53 fourth-graders are currently quarantined because of four positive cases.

As of Thursday, there were 46 positive cases among Hopewell Public Schools students and staff, up from 33 on Monday. More than 200 students and staff were in quarantine; just four infections were traced back to schools.

Some of the COVID-19 cases in schools have been breakthrough cases, or positive COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated people, which typically are milder but have still resulted in hospitalizations and deaths nationwide.

As COVID-19 cases grow in Virginia, so does hesitancy to send kids back into buildings. Various school districts have reported an increase in requests to switch to virtual school for the upcoming school year. The risks also are being felt by school staff.

Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman, who supports Northam’s mandate, has heard reports from some teachers who are required to quarantine that their districts will not pay them sick leave, or that they will have to use their own sick time to stay home.

“Because they continue to put themselves, and their families, on the line, the least [school districts] can do is provide them with the time so they can ensure they’re able to do their jobs,” Fedderman said in an interview. “I think that’s a small price to pay.”

A note to parents Wednesday recapping the Hanover school system’s mask policy and mitigation strategies approved at Tuesday night’s board meeting spoke to, among other things, parents who wanted to switch their children from face-to-face learning to online learning.

In Richmond, Kamras has said all 2,000 slots at the system’s virtual academy are full. Hopewell is making plans to expand virtual offerings but is struggling to find staff. Henrico has a wait list for its virtual academy, which, like others in the region, is billed as a yearlong commitment for families.

In Hanover, a small but growing number of students — 200 of the county’s projected 16,500 total enrollment — had been placed on a waiting list for online school as of Thursday. Schools spokesman Chris Whitley could not say Thursday how many of those 200 had come in since Tuesday night’s vote, but that the school system has seen an uptick in the number of requests to switch to online school since then.

Political fallout

Mask mandates have been a point of contention in Virginia and elsewhere, as conservatives and GOP leaders have insisted that requiring masks is a violation of people’s personal rights and, in the case of children, that masks are detrimental to their health and socialization. The CDC and public health experts insist masks effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19, including among children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Youngkin, a former private equity executive who is vying to become the first GOP governor since Bob McDonnell, said the mask mandate thwarts parental rights and is a way for “Richmond liberals” to “impose their will” on Virginians.

“We must respect parents’ right to decide what is best for their own children. If parents, teachers and children want to wear a mask, they absolutely should do that, but there should not be a statewide school mask mandate,” Youngkin said.

He added that the mandate appeared to portend further public restrictions. The Northam administration has not signaled such measures, but the risk of more aggressive variants means no officials in the U.S. or elsewhere can rule out future lockdowns.

“Make no mistake about it, this mask mandate is the first step towards returning to a full shutdown of our economy,” Youngkin said.

Youngkin, who got a COVID-19 vaccine, has opposed requiring masks in schools as well as requiring vaccinations in workplaces. Youngkin’s campaign said the candidate “believes that Virginians have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to get vaccinated” based on their personal circumstances.

Republican legislative leaders followed suit, deriding the new policy.

Leaders in the Senate GOP caucus, led by Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said Northam’s actions Thursday reflected executive overreach.

“[Northam] has imposed yet another mandate usurping local authority without any opportunity for public input,” the GOP leaders said. “These decisions are best made at the local level by officials who are directly accountable to those affected by the mandates.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, called it a “triumph of bureaucracy over common sense,” suggesting that mask-wearing among 2-year-olds in a school setting is impractical.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, vying for another term as governor, said through a campaign spokesman that Virginians need to do “everything we can to keep our children safe while they return to schools in person this fall,” and urged everyone to follow the CDC’s new guidance.

khunter@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6948

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Staff writer Holly Prestidge contributed to this report.

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