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IW schools will obey mask mandate

Isle of Wight County’s School Board had planned to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year but canceled its scheduled Aug. 12 vote after Gov. Ralph Northam issued a public health emergency order that afternoon imposing a universal mask mandate for all of Virginia’s K-12 schools.

Virginia Senate Bill 1303, Gov. Ralph Northam said during an Aug. 5 press conference, not only mandates that schools be open five days a week during the coming school year but also that schools follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance when it comes to mask-wearing. Currently, the CDC recommends all students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools resume wearing masks indoors – even if they’re fully vaccinated – in light of a nationwide COVID-19 resurgence fueled by the more contagious delta variant.

But even after that press conference, some Virginia school boards were still voting to leave the choice to parents, leading Northam to reinforce his interpretation of SB 1303 with the order.

“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” Northam said in a press release announcing the order. “That’s why the General Assembly passed this law with overwhelming bipartisan support. This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply.”

As of Aug. 10, only 40.3% of Virginia’s 12- to 15-year-olds and just over half of the state’s 16- to 17-year-olds were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and children under 12 are currently not eligible to receive any of the three available vaccines, which is one reason the CDC is recommending universal masking in all K-12 schools, the press release states.

Masks will also be required on school buses, per the CDC’s federal order requiring masks be worn on all forms of public transportation.

The order, “for many in our division, was a big disappointment,” School Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr said. “We have listened to the hearts of so many parents passionate about masking and others passionate about parent choice and I feel for you because I’m right there with you. I have grandsons entering kindergarten … grade 2, 4 and 7, but this is what it is and we want to make the best of it.”

“While I have nothing to do with the instruction or day schedules, I would like to encourage mask-less breaks, as many as we can get for our students,” Carr said. “I mean, elementary, I remember, having three recesses … middle school, high school, we need to be creative.”