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Despite governor's order, some schools will keep mask mandates... for now

Virus Outbreak Mask Guidelines
Mary Altaffer/AP
FILE - A student wears a face mask while doing work at his desk at the Post Road Elementary School, in White Plains, N.Y., in this Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, file photo. U.S. health officials say the highly contagious delta version of the coronavirus is behind changes to mask guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week announced that fully vaccinated people should resume wearing masks indoors if they live in areas where the virus is surging. CDC officials said new information about the spread of the delta variant forced them to reverse course. The agency also said teachers and students everywhere should go back to wearing masks in schools. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, FIle)

Seven school boards in northern and eastern Virginia are suing to stop Governor Glenn Youngkin’s order ending school mask mandates. Some schools in the WMRA area say they will keep their mandate policies in place for now, saying it’s largely a fight between the governor and the legislature. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

The executive order that took effect Monday aims to put the decision of whether or not a child needs to wear a mask at school solely in the hands of their parents, and says that even if a school, district, or state authority has a mask mandate or policy in place, parents are not subject to it. Since the order was published on January 15th, some local school divisions – including Frederick and Shenandoah counties – have chosen to make masks optional for students, although still strongly recommended.

The superintendents of those districts were not available for an interview last week.

Other divisions, including Waynesboro, Staunton, Charlottesville and Albemarle County, have said they'll continue to require students to wear masks for now. Harrisonburg City Public Schools are also in this camp. Superintendent Michael Richards explained their decision.

Michael Richards is superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

MICHAEL RICHARDS: Do we prioritize individual rights of choice, or do we prioritize collective actions that protect the community? And individual choice is a very important right. … But in cases where there's a public health emergency, it really needs to take a back seat to decisions that are in the interest of the common good and the community.

The executive order references the State Health Commissioner's order from August of last year, which requires mask-wearing in K-12 schools, saying that its instructions are irrelevant since it is now out of date – including the fact that children five and older are now able to get vaccinated against COVID.

RICHARDS: But not everyone's doing that. And so I think I would agree that, if everyone got vaccinated, it would be a different scenario.

The executive order also argues that mask-wearing in schools is ineffectual because children often wear masks incorrectly. Richards argues that the CDC and other public health guidance say that masks do need to be worn properly, but any mask wearing is better than none.

RICHARDS: And very often I've heard this kind of argument, where because there's some probability of infection, therefore, what you're doing shouldn't be done. And that's not true. The fact is, we're never going to get to a place where we're safe from being infected by COVID. But that's not what it's about in schools. What it's about is reducing the probability that a student or staff member would come down with severe disease.

The order says, [quote], "the universal requirement has also inflicted notable harm," including inhibiting children's ability to communicate, and the development of their speech, social, and emotional skills. Richards argued that, while masks are not ideal for these reasons, the public health benefits still outweigh the disadvantages.

RICHARDS: I don't know what the governor specifically has said, so I won't speak directly to what he said, but generally speaking, those concerns and issues are overblown. So for example, with a speech therapist, we have provided them with masks with a clear opening in front so that lips can be seen, and that kind of thing. Also, when you're doing that kind of work, it's not a crowded situation very often, and you can distance the student and the teacher enough so that the masks can be removed.

Then there's the issue of where children are typically exposed to COVID. Local administrators and public health officials told WMRA in September that contact tracing indicated that COVID exposures were mostly happening outside of school buildings. The CDC's guidance on transmission in K-12 schools references several studies showing that transmission in schools can be lower than levels of community transmission, when prevention strategies – including face masks – are in place in the classroom.

Also at play here is the question of what has the legal upper hand: an executive order, established state law, or local school boards' decisions?

RICHARDS: I've consulted with legal counsel on this – my understanding is that an executive order cannot force the school board to violate state law, and cannot usurp the power of the school board to make local decisions for the school community.

Then, there's Virginia Senate Bill 1303, which was signed into law last year, and stays in effect until August 1st. It requires school boards to offer in-person instruction, and to adhere "to the maximum extent practicable" to mitigation strategies provided by the CDC. To date, that guidance still recommends universal indoor masking regardless of vaccination status for K-12 settings.

RICHARDS: So it's hard to say that the executive order is not essentially demanding that a school division violate that law, and so the way I've been phrasing this is simply, "let's let people in Richmond figure that out." … My role, really, is to keep kids in school and to keep them as safe as possible. And universal masking, which my school board voted to put in place, is a huge part of that.

As The Harrisonburg Citizen reported, the Harrisonburg School Board voted four to zero, with two board members abstaining, to keep the mask requirement for the foreseeable future.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.