BERRYVILLE — To mask, or not to mask, that is the question on the minds of Clarke County Public Schools (CCPS) officials as they prepare for a new academic year.
The Clarke County School Board will be presented a draft back-to-school plan for consideration during its Aug. 9 work session.
Whether to require children and/or adults to wear face coverings inside school buildings — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues — will be “the big issue we have to decide on,” CCPS Superintendent Chuck Bishop told the board Monday night.
An order by state Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver for everyone age 5 and older to wear face coverings inside schools expired on Sunday. That prompted the Virginia departments of health and education last week to issue new guidance for schools for the 2021-22 academic year. It recommends that:
Elementary schools require students, teachers and staff to wear masks indoors — even if the adults are fully vaccinated — until vaccinations are available for children under 12 and they have sufficient time to get the shots.
Middle and high schools should require students, teachers and staff who aren’t fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors.
Whether to require masks in schools will be “more of a local decision this year,” Bishop said.
The recommendations encourage school divisions to be prepared to adjust mask policies as public health circumstances in their localities evolve. They also give schools the right to consider requiring everyone on school property to wear masks under certain conditions specified by the Centers for Disease Control. Those include:
When the local COVID-19 transmission rate is increasing or high enough that they believe universal masking is necessary.
A COVID-19 variant to which children and teenagers are more susceptible is spreading and/or causing severe illness among that age group.
If many students, teachers and staff declare they won’t participate in classroom learning if wearing masks indoors isn’t required of everyone.
Getting everyone to wear masks will be a challenge, Bishop acknowledged.
In a news release, Gov. Ralph Northam said the guidelines give school divisions flexibility while promoting a safe, healthy learning environment. However, he encourages everyone able to receive a vaccination to get one.
“Getting your shot will protect you, your family and your community,” said Northam, who is a pediatrician, “and it is the only way we can beat this pandemic once and for all.”
Speaking from the floor during Monday night’s meeting, two county residents encouraged the School Board not to require masks when the new school year starts.
Daniel Vaught said his son, who will be entering first grade at D.G. Cooley Elementary, “cries at the thought of having to wear masks.”
Since March 2020, when the pandemic was declared, 998 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Clarke County. Of those cases, 48 have involved hospitalizations and 21 have resulted in deaths, according to a Virginia Department of Health website. Those numbers are the lowest within the Lord Fairfax Health District and among the lowest statewide. The county has only about 14,500 residents.
Mentioning the low numbers, Vaught said he understands the county has had only three COVID-related deaths in the past few months.
He said a CDC study indicated there is almost no benefit to imposing mask mandates. Also, he said younger children learning to read benefit by watching mouth movements as words are spoken. Masks prohibit seeing those movements.
David Moore, whose three children attend Clarke County High School, said he understands that some students have traded their used masks for ones their friends had and which they liked better. That could enable the coronavirus to spread, he indicated.
Still, Moore is just glad that students are to be in classes five days a week when the new school year begins.
“It’s going to greatly improve their outlook on studying,” Moore said.
“Everyone’s ready for normal,” added board member Zara Ryan, or at least as normal as things can be.
Board Vice Chairwoman Katie Kerr-Hobert encouraged parents and students to contact board members and give their opinions about the mask issue.
The board must adopt a final back-to-school plan before classes resume on Aug. 31. It likely will do so during its Aug. 23 regular meeting.
If necessary, a second work session can be scheduled at some point during August to further scrutinize the plan, Chairwoman Monica Singh-Smith told the board.