COVID shift: Masks to be optional in Augusta County Schools soon, but not immediately

·3 min read

VERONA — Augusta County Public Schools will continue requiring face masks for students and staff at least three more weeks.

In a retreat Thursday afternoon at the Augusta County Government Center, the school board voted 5-1 to make masks optional in schools beginning Monday, Feb. 14.

That comes days after Staunton and Waynesboro announced their school divisions will continue to require masks to help with COVID-19 mitigation with no end date set for those mandates.

North River representative Nick Collins made the motion Thursday, which gives the school board a chance to reevaluate the decision in the coming weeks if there are any legal challenges to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin's executive order making masks optional or "any changing negative trends related to our local area health concerns."

With this vote, students and staff must still wear masks while in school until Feb. 14.

The only vote against the motion was from Beverley Manor representative Donna Wells, who had tried to amend the motion to extend the mandatory mask policy until Feb. 28. Her motion died for lack of a second.

"Personally, I would like to see the masks gone," Chairperson David Shiflett said, "but now I don’t think is the time.”

Augusta County Public Schools reported on its dashboard that the week of Jan. 9 it had 236 total cases of COVID, including 209 among students. That is its highest weekly total of the school year.

So far this week the school division has reported 85 cases despite students being out all week because of a holiday and snow.

Timothy Simmons, who represents the Pastures District, said he is in favor of making masks optional. He said "lots of parents" had reached out to him saying masks had created emotional damage for their children.

"We have to consider how the mask is affecting them emotionally," Simmons said. "Not seeing facial expressions."

Staunton and Waynesboro, in their announcements, mentioned SB1303, which requires each school board in Virginia to provide the in-person instruction "in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."

As of its most recent update on Jan. 13, the CDC "recommends universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 years and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."

Augusta County chose to follow Youngkin's executive order, which states in part:

  • The parents of any child enrolled in an elementary or secondary school or a school based early childcare and educational program may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.

  • No parent electing that a mask mandate should not apply to his or her child shall be required to provide a reason or make any certification concerning their child’s health or education.

  • A child whose parent has elected that he or she is not subject to a mask mandate should not be required to wear a mask under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education or any other state authority.

Youngkin's order goes into effect Monday, Jan. 24, but Augusta County's School Board wanted to add additional time to see if the current COVID surge in the area will subside.

Collins said he worded his motion so it gave a date for going mask optional, but also gave the board its own options. There were no specific numbers given as far as the number of COVID cases that would make the board consider extending the mandatory mask policy, only a very broad explanation by the board's chair.

"If between now and then things go crazy," Shiflett said. "We'll revisit it."

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Patrick Hite is The News Leader's education and sports reporter. Story ideas and tips always welcome. Contact Patrick (he/him/his) at phite@newsleader.com and follow him on Twitter @Patrick_Hite. Subscribe to us at newsleader.com.

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Augusta County Public Schools will keep masks mandatory until Feb. 14

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