WINCHESTER — With Winchester Public Schools swamped with coronavirus cases, the division plans to keep their school mask mandate, even if Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin drops the state mandate.

“We can’t place our teachers at risk and we can’t place our students at risk,” School Board Vice Chairwoman Karen M. Anderson Holman told board members at their Monday meeting, noting the spike in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations due to the omicron variant.

Of the division’s approximately 750 full-time staff and 300 part timers, 29 were out due to being diagnosed with the virus and seven were quarantining due to being exposed to someone with COVID, according to the WPS COVID-19 Dashboard. Of the 4,100 students, 132 were diagnosed and 214 were quarantining. The numbers were through 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum said the case numbers for staff and students were at an all-time high since the pandemic was declared in March of 2020. He said substitute teachers are “maxed out,” and he considered closing two schools on Monday due to staff shortages. He credited the “heroic” behavior of administrators, central office workers and teachers for filling in for colleagues in addition to their regular duties.

“They are doing everything they can to keep schools open,” he said. “But we may have to still close school. And if we need to, we will.”

Van Heukelum said it is a very stressful time for the schools and it would be imprudent to lift the mask mandate amid a spike in cases due to the highly infectious omicron variant. Omicron and the more severe delta variant have caused a flood of hospitalizations nationally and locally.

As of Tuesday, a record 141 COVID patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated, were hospitalized at Winchester Medical Center, according to hospital spokeswoman Carol S. Weare. Fourteen were on ventilators.

The pandemic has killed nearly 5.5 million people including about 840,000 Americans, according to the John Hopkins University University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. In Virginia, there were 15,715 deaths through Monday, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That includes 668 in the approximately 240,000-person Lord Fairfax Health District, which is comprised of Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.

Van Heukelum recommended the division’s mandate remain even if the Republican Youngkin ends the state mandate approved by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Van Heukelum noted Winchester Public Schools’ mandate was passed by board members on Aug. 9 before the Northam mandate, so what Youngkin does shouldn’t affect it.

Maculay Porter, a Youngkin spokeswoman, wouldn’t say on Tuesday if or when Youngkin will end the school mask mandate or what effect dropping it would have on COVID rates and keeping schools open. However, in an interview with WJLA News 7 in Fairfax County on Dec. 20, Youngkin said children showing signs of sickness or the virus should stay in school and be taught in a separate part of the school. He vowed to drop the mandate.

“We can in fact balance the needs of our children with the health and safety of our children,” said Youngkin, who will be sworn in on Saturday. “I don’t believe mandating masks is the right way.”

In a Nov. 19 interview on Charlottesville radio station WCHV, Youngkin said he would appoint a new health commissioner.

“And we will rescind the public health order that requires kids in K-12 education to wear a mask in order to attend both public and private schools,” he said.

Van Heukelum recommended the board postpone a mandate decision until February when he hopes the omicron spike will have subsided. While the COVID numbers are bad, Van Heukelum said staff vaccination numbers are encouraging. Of the division’s 390 teachers, 82% are vaccinated. Of overall full time staff, 77% are vaccinated. The percentages far exceed the 53% rate for the district and the 63% national rate.

For those refusing vaccinations, the division’s vaccinate-or-test policy took effect his week. Van Heukelum said about 170 staff and nearly 100 students will be tested weekly.

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(26) comments

Marymac

Deus Vult- your chosen name exposes you for exactly who and what you are- therefore, your insane opinions mean nothing-

Deus_Vult

Oh no, you're offended! Sorry, not sorry.

john brown

what is this 2 5th grade? grow up 2!

Spock Here

Marymac didn't sound offended. How can one be offended by such impotent remarks?

john brown

I see the right wing dumb as a brick crowd has jumped into this with both of their paws. None of these "knuckle draggers" have anything to do with WPS and thank god for that. Keep your neanderthal opinions in frederick county

Spock Here

The kids wearing masks in schools tend to be more capable of "adulting" than the creepy knuckle draggers here. I guess those active shooter drills we put them through has given them some perspective.

Deus_Vult

I'll give you this much -- you are consistent in your endorsement of child abuse.

TheOneAndOnlyNuri

"child abuse"? oh please, dude.

Spock Here

Well I personally think those school shooting drills come close to child abuse. The way kids understand what mask wearing is all about should shame these neanderthals

Doc Samson

@Deus - Notice how many Leftists are trying to "redefine" pedo behavior lately? Yeah, that's coming soon and you can be sure that Sporky and his ilk will be "all in" on that!

Active shooter drills are child abuse? Yeah, let's NOT teach them how to act in a crisis because that's always helpful. Better stop the fire drills because the alarm is LOUD and the light is "flashy"... Oh, my!

OldPhil

Let's keep doing something that doesn't work, because it has worked so well!!

The Pibbster

IMHO, it's all for liability reasons. If they don't mask, then an unfortunate situation happens, then some Lawyer would take it up and say the school system was liable.

Deus_Vult

How could they blame or sue the school? If that's the only place they go, it could be an issue. There's no proven way to determine where someone got exposed to a virus (or by whom) or when they got enough of it to become sickened or even contagious

Doc Samson

@OldPhil - Beautiful summarization of the Pr0g-Left, sir! [thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Doc Samson

75+% overall vaxx rate and yet... infection is crippling the schools? And we're going keep the masks? [lol][lol][lol] Now THAT'S SCIENCE! [thumbup]

Old Western Man

A placebo for the masses is the best solution government is capable of.

ANJ24

Well said. A security blanket for the terrified.

Jasba64

Conditioned

Catherine Giovannoni

This sounds like a good decision. Anything we can do to protect our students and teachers and keep schools functioning is good.

Deus_Vult

You're not protecting students and teachers by forcing them to put a useless piece of paper over their face. Not even the respirators are very effective in a normal environment. These policies are harmful for children, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. It is straight up abuse!

Jasba64

It's sure worked so far, hasn't it? Get out from under that rock quickly, before it smothers you.

john brown

hasn;t worked? it has for the vaccinated.. fewer hospitaizattions, far fewer deaths among the vaccinatedI....t's you right wing anti-vax tRump cultists that kepy us from getting Covid level way down. Bur you right wing tRumpists are paying the price for your ignorance. tRump loves the uneducated and uninformed.

Deus_Vult

Must be why the "cases" skyrocketed AFTER the shots became available. You're so gullible, it's almost makes me pity you.

Spock Here

Medieval minds don't understand that we need a higher vax rate, nor do they understand variants happened.

Doc Samson

@Sporky - I notice you have yet to acknowledge, much less address, the "science" behind the super spreading going in countries with a 75+% vax rate. I'm sure you have your... reasons. [lol]

john brown

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

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