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Mask order draws fire at Mecklenburg trustees meeting

SoVaNow.com / August 18, 2021
The current surge of COVID-19 — coupled with a mask mandate for all Virginia K-12 schools — reignited parents’ anxiety and caused a rift between Mecklenburg County School Board members and Superintendent Paul Nichols on Monday as they finalize plans for the return to school for Mecklenburg’s more than 4,300 students.

The divide, which played out during the board’s monthly meeting in Boydton Monday night, centers on two topics: mask wearing and virtual schooling. At least one parent and several trustees shared their opposition to Virginia’s mask mandate, and Nichols was forced to reverse his position on offering county students the option of attending school virtually through a private company, Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA).

At the July meeting of the School Board, Nichols said he would submit a recommendation on mask wearing protocols for both students and school personnel for trustees to consider at the August meeting regarding.

At a minimum, Nichols said he was seeking board approval to require all elementary students and staff who come in contact with these students to wear masks throughout the day, including when riding the bus to and from school and at all school-sponsored activities. His reasoning was that this population of students is entirely unvaccinated, as none meets the age requirement that qualified them to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Nichols said he was also inclined to seek a similar mandate for all secondary students and school personnel. While most, if not all, of these students and school employees could receive the COVID vaccine, MCPS has no way of verifying this fact. To protect the unvaccinated and for consistency of school policy, Nichols said he was likely to call for masking for all.

The policy which he presented Monday calls for universal masking during periods of peak transmission and while riding buses, per CDC directives. Nichols also advised voluntary mask wearing when community transmission risk levels are deemed low or moderate, as well as daily screenings for potential exposure to the virus, and quarantining of students, staff or classes when necessary. Nichols also asked the board to explore the potential for virtual learning should there be a significant spike in cases or if school closures are mandated by the state.

Last week, however, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a public health emergency order to require universal masking indoors, regardless of vaccination status, in all Virginia K-12 schools. The mandate applies to all students, teachers, staff, and visitors in any Virginia public or private K-12 school.

A release from Northam’s office on Thursday states the order reinforces state law that requires schools to adhere to mitigation strategies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To applause from a handful of parents who attended Monday’s meeting of the board, Barbara Morrison shared her reasons for opposing the mask mandate.

Morrison, the mother of a Clarksville Elementary student, said her child has been bullied, lied to and berated by fellow students, teachers and staff because she occasionally pulls her mask down from her nose so she can breathe.

Morrison told trustees, the lessons her child learned this past school year “had more to do with masks than academic.” Morrison said her child was told by fellow students that she would get sick or die if she did not wear a mask, and that her child was told by a teacher that if she did not put her mask over her nose the entire class would lose recess. This caused the other students to retaliate against her child, Morrison said.

The last time Morrison spoke to the board on the mask topic, a few months ago, she shared data she said she collected from the CDC and other sources that prove that masks do not fully protect the wearer from the COVID virus and cause other health and cognitive problems — misalignment of teeth and jaw, oxygen deprivation, carbon dioxide buildup, decreased ability to concentrate and more.

Based on her child’s experiences and other information she’s read, Morrison said mask mandates cause fear among younger children and have a negative psychological impact on them. “It puts unnecessary stress on a child who is in a learning environment. As a parent, we will take control of our child’s health. If my child cannot breathe [because of the mask], she needs to be able to do what is needed to breathe.”

School Board Vice Chair Dora Garner said she, too, was not in favor of the mask mandate. “When you only have one lung, you have no idea how hard it is to breathe.” Garner said forcing children with breathing issues to wear a mask for the nearly 10 hours they are in school — including time spent riding the bus — was punishing.

“A lot of these people who are dictating to us ought to wear [the masks] the same amount of time as these kids,” she said. “I hope this thing goes away in a hurry and we can begin to breathe.”

Chairman Gavin Honeycutt worried that the mask mandate was a barrier to learning. “I never thought about how mask would inhibit learning opportunities for kids until a teacher spoke.” Honeycutt said the teacher reminded him that as young children are learning reading and phonics, they need to be able to see the teacher’s mouth to see how to form sounds and learn words. This can’t be done if the teacher must wear a mask.

Wanda Bailey thanked Morrison, saying, “I appreciate her comments as far as the science behind virus transmission” and added her own admonition to the governor — “stop placing so much emphasis on mask wearing.”

Despite these comments, as a backstop, should Northam reverse his position on mask wearing, the board voted without opposition to implement the COVID-19 policy that Nichols and administrative staff developed with includes its own mask mandate during periods of high risk.

Nichols said if students were currently back in school, even under the MCPS COVID-19 policy, students would be wearing masks since the county’s transmission rate was at the highest level, red – meaning the seven-day average of cases is more than 100 per 100,000.

As of Monday, according to assistant superintendent Abe Jeffers, Mecklenburg County’s transmission rate stood at 208 per 100,000. He explained he arrived at that number by totaling the number of cases reported in the past seven days, dividing that by the number of residents in the county and multiplying the quotient by 100,000.

Bailey asked why the Virginia Department of Health data was not currently reporting Mecklenburg County as being in the highest risk category for transmission. Both Nichols and Jeffers said they had no explanation for how VDH reported its data. On Monday, CDC data listed the level of community transmission for COVID-19 in Mecklenburg County as being in the red.

Before asking the board to rescind a prior vote that authorized him to enter into a memorandum of understanding with VAVA, Nichols said, “I am exceeding humbled to have to reverse my recommendation.” Nichols was chastised by board chair Honeycutt for misleading the board and parents about the cost and amount of work it would take for the school division to offer parents and students a chance to attend school virtually through VAVA.

Nichols said he’d spoken with other superintendents and school officials before recommending the board enter into a contract with VAVA. “It gave parents an option if they chose for their child not to come to school.” After conversations with staff at the Virginia Department of Education and MCPS staff, he said it was made clear that the problems with implementing the program with VAVA outweighed its benefits.

It opened the doors for students to “go back and forth” between in-person and virtual learning, which would be disruptive to both their learning experience and the classroom. Moreover, the paperwork required by the state to participate in the program “is quite overwhelming.” The cost turned out to be higher than the school division could afford.

“My heart bleeds for the students who signed up [for virtual classes through VAVA].”

About 14 students had indicated a desire to take part in the program. They will no longer be able to enroll in VAVA’s virtual academy unless the parents are willing to pay the full cost.

Ricky Allgood asked if participation in VAVA could be revisited at a later date and was told “yes” by Nichols. “I think it’s a good program. I see why we’re not doing this,” Allgood said.

In other business, Nichols said MCPS is in contact with the family of Olympic gold medalist Keldon Johnson and was planning to honor him at the next board meeting in September. Johnson attended Park View High School through the tenth grade before transferring to a prep program, and his family are residents of Mecklenburg County.

Johnson was a member of the U.S. men’s basketball team which won the gold medal during the recent Olympics in Tokyo. Johnson is also a forward for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA.

Nichols gave an update on the construction progress at the county’s new secondary school complex being built in Baskerville. With steel erection in progress, second floor decking completed, and roofing, plumbing, electrical, and fire suppression installation continuing, the project is still on target to be completed before the start of school in September 2022.

The final completion date is anticipated to be Aug. 1, 2022.

Erin Spence explained the new Inclusive Placement Opportunities for Preschoolers (IPOP) grant that MCPS received. She said it will be used to support the school division as it develops, expands and improves inclusive placement opportunities for preschoolers with Individual Education Programs (IEP’s).

Spence said this grant will “open many doors for pre-school students with disabilities” and it came with a $2,000 stipend that she used to purchase interactive and adaptive materials for the five early childhood classrooms in the school system — one at each elementary school except for South Hill Elementary which has two.

Nichols said Longwood Solar is looking to enter into a partnership with MCPS to place solar panels at the new school site which will not only generate power for the school but also will be used as a learning tool, part of a solar training program.

Glenn Edwards suggested that Nichols “reach into our pockets and do a deep study about this” before agreeing to the program. “We need to be careful with what we put on our property.” He suggested that instead of installing solar panels on school property the division “bus our students over to Chase City where we have 900 acres of solar.”

Honeycutt worried about the environmental impact of the panels and Bailey said, “until we know what our responsibilities are I would be hesitant.”

The athletics committee is recommending that MCPS seek to join the Virginia High School League Central region for athletic competitions once the county’s two high schools merge. A request to that effect has been sent to the Virginia High School League, which makes the final decision.

Honeycutt reminded everyone that the first day of school is Sept. 7. The open house, which will be in person is Sept. 1 from noon-6 p.m. Parents can go, in person, to the schools, but must wear a mask.

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Comments

All they have to do is a simple exemption form. The order King Ralph put out has to have an exemption in it so it will pass Constitutional muster. Don't let the school boards bully you.

Comments

I cannot believe people are still complaining about masks. This is our children we are trying to protect! Just wear a mask, it is that simple, it is a simple thing to do! How can you all be so selfish as to only think about yourselves???

Comments

So parents are concerned about teeth, jawlines etc, all can be addressed dead child from disease is a little more difficult to fix.


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