Area school divisions and colleges are grappling with whether to require students and staff to wear masks when they return next month.
Some parents hoped school systems would adopt a “masks optional” status following the June 30 expiration of Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order requiring masks in K–12 schools.
“For us as parents, we would like to be able to make the health decisions for our children,” said Brien Gregan, who has two children in King George County Public Schools. “If you think that the mask protects your child, great, have them wear a mask. But if I think the masks do not protect my child and in fact may do them harm, I should have the choice of whether or not to put one on my child’s face.”
But conflicting guidance from the CDC and a public health order from the State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver have made school boards leery of taking the “mask-optional” step.
Oliver’s July 1 public health order, which will expire July 25, requires masks to be worn by everyone 5 and older while indoors at public and private K–12 schools, citing the “high percentage of unvaccinated individuals” in K–12 schools and the fact that “decreasing community spread” in schools will “protect the public health of all Virginians.”
The CDC’s most recent guidance, which came out July 9, says masks should be worn indoors by everyone ages 2 and up who is not fully vaccinated.
“Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households,” the CDC’s guidance states.
“COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers, and staff, who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels.”
School divisions are also still expecting new guidance on mask requirements from the Virginia Department of Education.
“Virginia guidance for K–12 schools for the 2021–2022 school year is forthcoming, following expected updates in guidance from the CDC which is anticipated in the near future. After CDC updates are published, Virginia will issue revised operational guidance for the 2021–2022 school year,” State Superintendent of Public Education James Lane told division superintendents in a July 1 email.
The King George County School Board on June 21 unanimously approved a motion to “accept the governor’s ruling at the expiration of the state of emergency lifting the mask mandate at the end of June 30.”
Superintendent Robert Benson asked the School Board at the June 21 meeting “keep in mind that if a motion by the board directs the division to do one thing July 1 and then CDC guidance be delivered because something changes, the motion could create a conflict.”
In a July 1 email, he said King George would follow the public health order requiring masks through July 25.
The Spotsylvania School Board on Monday voted down a motion to give parents the ability to determine whether or not their student would wear a mask. Substitute motions offered would have made the resolution effective July 26 and extended it to staff and visitors. These were also voted down.
The meeting Monday was preceded by a rally to “Unmask our Children.”
The board members who did not approve the motions to make masking optional—Baron Braswell, Lorita Daniels, Erin Grampp and Dawn Shelley—suggested that they might have supported them if they did not potentially set up a conflict between division policy and state mandates.
Grampp said that according to the Virginia constitution, school boards may only adopt bylaws and policies that are “not inconsistent with state statues and regulations of the Board of Education.”
Jennifer Parrish, the Spotsylvania School Board’s attorney, said courts place “great weight” on whether divisions have followed state guidance when determining liability.
The board did approve a motion to send a letter to the governor and VDOE stating that Spotsylvania County Public Schools supports parental choice in masks.
Other local K–12 school divisions are waiting for guidance from the VDOE.
“We will follow the VDOE’s guidance and if they leave it up to localities, we’ll go from there,” said Jeff Wick, coordinator of safety and compliance for Caroline County Public Schools.
Stafford County Public Schools spokesperson Hunter Berry said the division “will continue working with our health department for guidance on this issue.”
“We will of course follow any state executive orders, but right now it is too early to state what the policy will be for the upcoming school year,” he wrote in an email.
Fredericksburg City Public Schools is also waiting on VDOE guidance, division leaders said last week.
Among local colleges, the University of Mary Washington is requiring that all students be fully vaccinated by the start of the fall 2021 semester.
“Waivers are available for those who do not wish to be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons, and these students will be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing,” a statement from the university reads. “UMW will also provide an opt-out waiver for students who will never access any UMW campus, facility, or in-person event this year; however, the University will not provide separate online options for in-person classes for students who do not wish to receive the vaccine.”
UMW will require that unvaccinated students wear masks on campus.
Germanna Community College will open for face-to-face classes Aug. 23. Vaccination is not required of students, staff, faculty or contractors “at this time,” according to a statement. Those who are not fully vaccinated are being asked to wear masks.
“Germanna is not asking for proof of vaccination but expects individuals to be respectful and do their part in protecting the health of Germanna community members,” the statement reads. “Fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear masks, but are welcome to do so inside the buildings, shared offices, spaces and classrooms.”
The CDC’s guidance states that “vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic” and stresses that multiple mitigation efforts are necessary where people are not fully vaccinated.
Locally, King George County has the lowest vaccination rate, with 36.8 percent of the population fully vaccinated, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Caroline is next with 38.3 fully vaccinated, followed by Fredericksburg at just under 40 percent, Stafford at 41 percent and Spotsylvania at 41.8 percent.
For those ages 10 to 19, vaccination rates are lower. In Fredericksburg, 16.8 percent of that age group is fully vaccinated, followed by 19 percent in Caroline, 20 percent in King George, just under 24 percent in Spotsylvania and 27 percent in Stafford.
The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for use in those 12 and older. The Moderna and one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines are both recommended for ages 18 and older.
The Rappahannock Area Health District is also emphasizing the importance of schools finding “a balance between the need to get students back to full-time, in-person learning and continuing to protect those who are not yet vaccinated.”
“The CDC’s guidance is consistent with what the science has shown, that unvaccinated people are at risk of contracting and transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19,” Dr. Olugbenga Obasanjo, RAHD health director, said in a statement, adding that the delta variant is “now the most prevalent in the United States and has proven to be more transmissible.”
But Gregan said new cases of COVID-19 in King George are extremely low. The seven-day average number of daily new cases reported in the county as of July 15 was 1, according to the VDH’s COVID-19 database.
Caroline and Fredericksburg also had seven-day averages of 1 new case. Stafford’s average was 6 and Spotsylvania’s was 5.
“I’m not one to make anybody do anything,” Gregan said. “But what is the need of this?”