Hampton Roads’ largest school division opted Thursday night to make wearing masks optional — as school boards around the region raced to make decisions before Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order goes into effect.
Three area school boards — Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach — made their decisions Thursday. Starting next week, masks will be optional in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, mandatory in Portsmouth.
Chesapeake and Virginia Beach voted 7-1 and 9-2, respectively, while Portsmouth’s vote was unanimous.
The decision to make masks optional didn’t come as a surprise in Chesapeake as former Vice Chair Colleen Leary stated the board would reevaluate its mandate if the circumstances around face coverings changed. The district recanted its decision to make masks optional last month after COVID-19 cases surged before students returned from winter break due to the omicron variant.
Portsmouth is the only school division in Hampton Roads to defy Youngkin’s order, requiring all students, employees and visitors to wear a mask. During its meeting the local health department advised board members the city has recently seen record-high case numbers since the start of the pandemic.
Norfolk board members unanimously voted Wednesday to continue following the district’s mitigation plan and require masks indoors. The plan’s mask exemptions section updated the next day to include a portion for parents choosing to opt out of its mandate. Students and staff also must continue to wear face coverings masks while riding the bus.
Masks have been mandatory in most Virginia schools since they reopened to in-person learning - and have drawn criticism since before then. Many school officials and teachers embraced the mandate, in part because maintaining a safe distance among staff and students was difficult to achieve.
While trying to find alternatives Thursday for a layer mitigation strategy without a mask mandate, many Virginia Beach board members apologized to teachers who will bear the brunt of the decision, coining them frontline workers and heroes.
“Thank you for getting up every day and doing what you do every single day. And I hope and I pray that what comes out of this is really the uplifting of our educational professionals,” Vice Chair Kimberly Melnyk said.
Attempts to make masks optional in Virginia Beach had failed three times. But those who have pushed for parent choice in the division were triumphant after board members deliberated for two hours before going into closed session. The vote adopted administrators’ recommendation to abide by state law and continue mask-wearing in schools, while giving parents the option to decline.
“I think what we’re doing is acknowledging that we are operating in the auspices of a state law, which allows and suggests we ought to keep a mask mandate in place and also acknowledging that there is an executive order from our governor,” Superintendent Aaron Spence said to member Jessica Owens after she suggested the division wait until after a court decision on the matter.
“What we’re doing is saying that those two things exist simultaneously. Should the courts interpret that differently, as we’ve done all the way through this mess of this pandemic, we’ll adjust accordingly,” Spence said.
In addition to the recommendation, the vote will require all students to wear a mask while visiting the school nurse. The district must also work to speedily order KN95 masks for teachers and figure out a way to collect parent notification for students who can forego masking.
Thirteen parents from Chesapeake have sued to halt Youngkin’s order.
Sierra Jenkins, 229-462-8896, email@example.com