Emotions ran high on Tuesday night as two Richmond-area school boards faced tough crowds in votes about mask mandates for the coming school year. Chesterfield County ultimately adopted a mask mandate, while Hanover County did not.
After hearing from public speakers that among other things compared masks to child abuse, Hanover County’s School Board overruled the system’s superintendent and voted 4-3 against requiring students or staff to wear masks for the 2021-22 school year.
Shortly afterward — after a public comment period, a presentation and board deliberations that combined for nearly four hours — the Chesterfield County School Board unanimously approved a universal mask mandate.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Chesterfield schools Superintendent Merv Daugherty recommended the “consistent and correct use of masks” and physical distancing if available. In addition, he strongly encouraged staff and eligible students to get vaccinated.
Dr. Alexander Samuel, director of the Chesterfield Health District, also had recommended that children wear masks.
“I think the delta variant has changed the game,” Samuel said Tuesday night.
He said that because children “can still get sick and they can still transmit ... the risk of transmission to vulnerable family members is another consideration to this.”
Hanover schools Superintendent Michael Gill had recommended that elementary students wear masks, with staff and secondary students wearing them in schools only if unvaccinated.
Hanover School Board member John Axselle made the motion to allow for the choice, saying that while he respects Gill’s recommendations, he said the data points “don’t justify making the changes,” referring to mask mandates.
“Who better to make a choice about a child’s safety than their parents?” Axselle said.
Fellow board member Steve Ikenberry concurred, saying that evidence doesn’t support having students — particularly young ones — wear masks.
All public school systems in Virginia are reopening buildings to students this fall under a new state law requiring in-person instruction unless a coronavirus outbreak occurs that is considered severe under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.
Districts can also offer a virtual learning option. But as the school year looms — Chesterfield’s year begins with a staggered start on Aug. 23-24, while Hanover begins Sept. 7 — school officials around the area are grappling with how to keep students and staff safe.
Surging cases of the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19 prompted the CDC to recommend that all students and staff wear masks in schools. The Virginia Department of Education is urging school officials to mandate masks for elementary school students, but not requiring them to do so.
The debates at Tuesday's board meetings were just the latest in an incendiary year for the two school districts, which last summer saw dueling rallies over whether students should return to classrooms.
One group rallying Tuesday outside of the Chesterfield meeting asked for masks and spoke in support of the county’s transgender students, as well as the teaching of critical race theory. Supporters held rainbow paper fans and signs, which said “Teach the Truth,” “I Co-Parent with Science” and “Safe & Inclusive.”
Those against masks held signs such as “We Need Leaders, Not Sheep,” “Don’t Make Me Wear a Stinky Mask!” and “My Child! My Choice!”
Almost all 30 people who spoke during the public comment period in Chesterfield weighed in on the mask mandate. Those who disagreed with wearing a mask did not wear one in the meeting room.
Announcements were made twice during the comment period to remind community members to not shout from the crowd.
Kate Bowers, a pediatrician in Chesterfield, said having children in masks offers the best chance of avoiding a COVID-19 infection.
“I think I speak for pediatricians and parents alike when I say I desperately want our kids to have a safe and contiguous in-person learning experience for the upcoming school year,” Bowers said.
After comparing wearing a mask to waterboarding — a form of torture — at a previous school board meeting, a 10-year-old incoming fifth-grader in Chesterfield schools again spoke out against the mandate Tuesday.
The student, Marielle Smith, questioned the county's School Board, asking whether the members thought that wearing masks is in the best interest of children. She said she would feel dizzy and get a headache when wearing a mask last year in school.
After the Chesterfield vote, School Board member Debbie Bailey read a statement expressing her frustration with the decision being left in the board's hands.
“Once again, we're put in the crosshairs of a very polarizing issue that revolves around public health,” Bailey said. “I do not think it is my responsibility to make decisions about the health choices a family makes for children. I do not want to take away parental rights or freedoms.”
The CDC classifies Chesterfield and Hanover as having high community transmission, the most severe level, which is defined by the federal agency as having more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.
On Aug. 1, cases in the Chesterfield Health District had more than quadrupled since July 4 — and among the 10-to-19 age group, there were nearly five times as many cases. In the Chickahominy Health District, which has four localities including Hanover, infections had more than tripled to a weekly total of 216.
Data from the Virginia Department of Health shows that the 10-to-19 age group accounts for the second-most infections caused by variants, trailing behind only Virginians in their 20s.
Last week, still not mandating masks in schools, both Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said that if schools are in-person five days a week, CDC guidelines must be followed — and if not, schools could face "significant legal pressure."
In the Richmond area, the Richmond, Chesterfield, Hopewell and Petersburg school systems have mask mandates. Other school systems in Virginia that have adopted a universal mask mandate include districts in the counties of Amelia, Alexandria, Arlington, Caroline, Fairfax, Loudoun and Spotsylvania.
Two weeks into Hopewell’s inaugural year-round school year, the school system is grappling with mounting COVID-19 cases among students, with at least 200 staff members and students in quarantine. The district is planning to expand virtual schooling, which currently has about 100 students enrolled.
Staff writers Kenya Hunter and Sabrina Moreno contributed to this report.