Southampton, Franklin public schools keep mask mandate

Published 6:55 pm Thursday, January 27, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Southampton County Public Schools and Franklin City Public Schools have opted to continue requiring masks for now despite Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order that repealed Virginia’s universal K-12 mask mandate and made parents the arbiter of whether or not their child will wear a mask.

The order went into effect at midnight Monday, Jan. 24.

It was on Youngkin’s first day in office Jan. 15 that he signed Executive Order No. 2. The order itself notes it is designed to reaffirm the rights of parents in the upbringing, education and care of their children.

The second directive of the order states, “The parents of any child enrolled in (an) elementary or secondary school or a school-based early child care 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.”

In light of the governor’s order, the Southampton County School Board held a special called meeting Monday evening to discuss the school division’s existing mask policy, which requires masks. The board voted unanimously to leave the policy unchanged for now.

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, FCPS released a statement from Franklin City School Board Chairwoman Amy L. Phillips.

“We are currently reviewing the language of the executive order, are in consultation with local  health officials, reviewing (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, assessing current local COVID data, as well as reviewing applicable current state laws to make the best, most informed decision for the health and safety of our staff and students,” she said. “Until we are able to come to that decision, we will continue to follow the CDC’s mitigation strategies in regard to masks. We will discuss this further at a future board meeting. 

“We appreciate your understanding and commitment to the health and well-being of all members of the FCPS community, as well as your patience through this process.”

At the Southampton County School Board meeting Monday, SCPS Superintendent Dr. Gwendolyn P. Shannon opened the proceedings by presenting information to the board on the executive order, an existing senate bill, the school system’s COVID-19 mitigation plan and current information on rising COVID numbers locally.

“In addition to the governor’s mandate, we also have Senate Bill 1303,” Shannon said. “Senate Bill 1303 essentially states that each school board is ‘to provide such 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.’”

She added that this bill is in effect until Aug. 1.

“In accordance with Senate Bill 1303, we have firm mitigation strategies in place,” she said. “Currently our students are wearing masks in our buildings, in any vehicles and on our buses, and the mask also applies to staff, parents, anyone who enters the building.”

She listed a variety of other strategies in place, including highlighting how SCPS has had two successful COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

“We have a clinic scheduled for Feb. 9 and 10 as well as March 2 and 3,” she said. “These clinics are open to the community, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re getting your first shot, your second shot or your booster — you’re welcome to attend and participate in our vaccination clinic.”

Returning to the subject of masks, Shannon said that the CDC presently recommends the use of N95 or KN95 masks to reduce COVID transmission.

She then pointed to CDC COVID guidelines that she noted were updated Jan. 13.

“The main thing that I want to emphasize is that CDC does recommend universal indoor masking by all students ages 2 years old and older, staff, teachers and visitors of K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status,” she said.

Lastly, she discussed local COVID statistics, pointing out that there was a peak of community transmission of the virus in early 2021 and that another peak had been reached in the latter half of December 2021.

“Oct. 31st through Nov. the 13th was the only period of moderate transmission this school year,” she said.

Board member William Worsham was the first to share his thoughts on what the board should do with regard to the SCPS mask policy.

“A year and a half ago, we took votes as to whether or not we’d go back to school,” he said. “At that time the original COVID virus was not affecting children. Within about another year, we came down with the delta variant, and that variant still did not affect children.”

He referenced the rising numbers Shannon presented and urged board members to look at them carefully.

“I, in my career, always have done what I thought was best for children first, and in my opinion, and I know this may sound different than what my votes have been, but when I look at figures like I’m looking at now, I find more children being affected by this,” he said. “I think as a result of affecting those children, my stand on this would be that we wear masks. I think for the safety of the children, we’ve got to take into account more than just the governor’s resolution or executive order, whichever one you want to call it.

“Does that executive order override the constitution of this state, and does it override the law that came up the past year about wearing masks?” he continued. “I think this week the Supreme Court of the state of Virginia is going to look at this, and we’re probably going to get some type of written notice as to where the court stands on it.”

He said the current variant of the coronavirus affects children more so than older people.

“I just don’t think this board should be held responsible because we didn’t take all the necessary steps to protect children and (then) something terrible happens with one of our children,” he said.

He emphasized that he was not changing his mind on how schooling should be conducted — in person as opposed to virtually.

“Students need to be in school, and the way we can keep them in school is with masks, and if that’s the case, then let’s go with that,” he said.

He noted that the other part of this issue pertains to school staff, indicating that if the virus spreads more easily due to fewer mitigation measures, like masking, it could significantly increase the school division’s staffing challenges.

“We’re having a difficult time as it is hiring full-time teachers,” he said. “We’re not the only ones; many places are. But the point of the matter is (that) when a teacher is out, we have to fill it with a substitute, and substitutes we’re not finding.”

Florence Reynolds was the next board member to speak, and she opened by saying she was thinking along the same lines as Worsham. 

“I’m sure that all of us here tonight are here because we care about children,” she said.

She underscored a recent news report stating that about a million children were hospitalized in America due to COVID-19.

She said that wearing masks mitigates the impact of the virus, giving the school division a way to protect children.

“This mask-wearing is going to protect that child that is coming to school without a mask too, you know?” she said. “We are for our children, and we adults, we are going to have to answer for what we do for our children.”

She decried people focused on politics when it comes to this issue.

“We can’t go that way,” she said. “The political people are for themselves. All they think about are the politics of things. Well, there are no politics when little Johnny is laid to rest.”

She also expressed frustration with people making the issue of mask-wearing about rights.

“We’ve all got rights, and we, as school board members, have to be sure that our children here in Southampton have the right to be protected,” she said.

She closed by noting that if some parents do not want their children to wear a mask, they have rights, and they can take their children in their home for virtual learning and even home-school if it is that important to them.

Board member Donna Rountree briefly spoke next, noting that some of Worsham’s comments summed up most of how she feels.

“We’ve got to look at the safety of the kids, and it’s been proven that masks do help,” she said. “Those numbers don’t look good for us, but just imagine what they could be.”

Board member Denise Bunn said, “I would agree that when you look at the numbers of where we are right now that this is not a smart time to stop any mitigation strategies that are in place. We’re actually at a point in time that we’re seeing numbers rise. Just within our community, the spread is rampant right now. You can’t talk to anybody without finding out somebody’s been quarantined or somebody’s positive. 

“So to do the right thing by our children, by our staff, by our community, I think it’s just unconscionable to even consider taking away something that is a layer of protection — it’s already in place,” she said, adding that dropping the mandate would not be ethically correct.

Board Vice Chair James Pope III said, “I’m like everybody else. I want to see us get back to normal as soon as possible. What’s normal? No longer wearing masks. But right now, with the numbers where they are, I don’t see that as an option. In our community, COVID is spreading so rapidly I feel like if we did away with masks, it would go through our staff so quickly, virtual wouldn’t even be an option.

“Our job is to provide a quality education, and I feel like that’s in the classroom,” he continued. “But we learned last year, virtual was a tool, but it wasn’t a good one for anybody. It was the only option we had at the time, but now we’ve got an option — just wear a mask until the numbers get better. And I think that’s what we should do.”

He said that any way a board member votes, someone is going to get upset.

“I can live if somebody gets mad because their kid has to wear a mask two or three more months, but I don’t think I could live with the fact that somebody passed away — a staff member or a student — because we said you didn’t have to wear a mask,” he said.

He noted that if the COVID numbers get better, the board can revisit the decision.

Board member Lynn Bradley said she agrees with Pope.

“I think we need to keep what we have in place,” she said.

She also expressed empathy for parents who take issue with the continued mask mandate.

“I can also understand, too, the feelings that you feel like, as a parent, that the school is telling you what you can and cannot do, and it’s not that we’re trying to tell you that,” she said. “It’s that we’re trying to protect your child as well as every other child in the school system.”

She said she read over information from the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC in advance of Monday’s meeting.

“I’m thinking if my two girls that graduated from here were back in here, I would want them wearing a mask, I would want them protected, I would want them to use every option that they could to stay healthy,” she said. “We have a board meeting in two weeks. A lot can change between now and two weeks. We can look at it again in two weeks and see what things are looking like. But as it stands right now, I just feel like we need to keep the masks.”

Board member Greg Scott said he agreed with Pope and Bradley.

“I have a senior at Southampton High School, my daughter, and I would want her to take every extent to make sure that she is safe, but not only her — all the other children in the building as well,” he said. “So I believe that it’s a little too early to take the masks off now.”

He noted that as other board members had stated, if things get better, they can always revisit the topic and make adjustments.

“Taking the masks off right now I just don’t think would be a wise idea,” he said.

Closing out board comments prior to the vote was board member Christopher Smith Sr., who said that he was totally in favor of the board maintaining its current mask policy, with the option of virtual learning for those who cannot wear a mask.

“Wearing a mask is not just for your protection but it’s for the protection of others, and that’s the main thing about mask-wearing,” he said. “So if we just continue the way we’re going, that would be my decision.”