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Decisions pending on school mask guidelines / August 04, 2021

As the start of a new school year approaches, the Mecklenburg County School Board will be asked this month to establish policies for wearing masks in school.

The matter came up came during a special call meeting of the School Board on Thursday, with the trustees’ regular monthly meeting scheduled Aug. 16. The first day of school is set for Sept. 7.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols asked trustees to be prepared to make their recommendations at the August meeting. At a minimum, Nichols suggested that all elementary school students and personnel wear masks while traveling to and from school and throughout the day. All bus riders, regardless of their grade level will need to wear masks under CDC orders for public transit riders.

Nichols said he is “strongly recommending that everyone at secondary schools should wear masks since social distancing will be hard and school personnel have no knowledge of who is and is not vaccinated.”

The current Return to School guidance from the Virginia Department of Education calls for schools to:

1. Evaluate the level of community disease transmission

2. Understand community level vaccination coverage

3. Consider the level of impact to a school

4. Understand community and school capacity and needs

5. Determine and implement a layered approach with multiple prevention strategies.

While the Department of Education cannot order school divisions to implement in-person learning, it strongly encourages “all schools in Virginia to offer in-person instruction options,” according to Nichols. He noted, too, that the Virginia DOE position is that “temporary school closures should only be necessary in the context of controlling spread associated with increased impact to school such as increased cases or outbreaks.”

Senate Bill 1303, passed during Virginia’s 2021 legislative session, requires all schools to make in-person instruction available to all students, regardless of the level of community transmission as long as the impact to a school remains favorable. Under this new law, schools are permitted to switch from in-person to partial or fully virtual instruction temporarily if COVID-19 transmission levels within the school are deemed to be at a high level. That decision must be made in collaboration with the local health department.

While school-sponsored sports and extracurricular activities are beneficial to students and can help them learn and achieve, the DOE says that schools and communities should continue to use a “classroom-first” approach that prioritizes in-person learning over extracurricular activities including sports and school events.

According to Nichols, as of July 25, Gov. Ralph Northam is no longer making any findings regarding local school operations. Nichols said it is up to the MCPS School Board to establish protocols for handling future COVID-related outbreaks using recommendations from the CDC.

MCPS attorney Brad King said if the school division goes against the recommendations of the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education, it could open up the school board to lawsuits.

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