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Roanoke and Botetourt counties change course, approve school mask mandates
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Roanoke and Botetourt counties change course, approve school mask mandates

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Prompted by a state law, the Roanoke County School Board held a special-called meeting on Friday to overturn its decision from earlier in the week, ruling by a split vote that all students, faculty, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks indoors when classes resume next week.

And on Friday, 10 days after Botetourt County’s school division announced that it would recommend but not require unvaccinated students to wear masks indoors during the new school year, the division announced that policy’s reversal.

Citing both Centers for Disease Control guidelines and Gov. Ralph Northam’s reminder on Thursday that those guidelines are legally binding, Botetourt schools will abide by them, according to a news release.

“Botetourt County Public Schools will abide by the updated CDC guidelines,” according to the news release. “Effective immediately, masks will be universally required by all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to our schools, regardless of vaccination status. This requirement applies to all upcoming open houses, orientations, and other gatherings prior to the start of the school year.”

At the Roanoke County board meeting, Chairman Jason Moretz on Tuesday voted against a mask mandate for elementary students, but on Friday he voted in favor of the requirement for all grades, thus reversing the board’s prior decision and apparently making the division compliant with a bill passed into Virginia law this spring.

“I’m not casting this vote because I live in fear of COVID,” Moretz said, acknowledging it could cost him votes in his bid for re-election this November. “I’m casting this vote because our goal is to have these kids in the classroom.”

The vote came after a one hour and 23-minute closed session. Board members said during the closed session, they were discussing with attorneys whether Senate Bill 1303 — a law passed with bipartisan support that is effective until August 2022 — legally requires Roanoke County Schools to mandate mask-wearing.

“Given the fact we want to have kids in school, the most important thing is masking,” said Charlene Vail, the school division’s Coordinator of Health Services. “Vaccination is important, but we can’t do that with little kids yet.”

Voting against the mask requirements, same as Tuesday, were board members Tim Greenway and David Linden, while Vice Chairman Mike Wray and interim member David Wymer again voted in favor.

Greenway said the closed discussion should have instead been held for all to hear.

“Why not discuss it in public?” Greenway said. “There are things that are very big question marks to me.”

He referenced living in a pick-and-choose society as related to mask-wearing, then added that four school board seats are up for election in November.

“I’m running unopposed,” Greenway said. “But I can tell you without a doubt, had I known we were going to go through this mess again, I would have never signed back up for this.”

Linden said COVID-19 prevention guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control on Thursday recommend not playing sports in places with high transmission, which would presently include Roanoke County. Nonetheless, sports are planned to continue.

“We are going to hide behind a 16-page CDC document that came out yesterday,” Linden said. “It’s OK to play sports, but you have to wear masks? To pick and choose out of these 16 pages which of these CDC guidelines we choose to follow doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Wymer said he did not expect the closed session to take so long, adding that, like masks, more vaccinations will help decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission.

“We keep saying and I keep hearing that we want to return to normal. Well, we can only control one segment of that normal, and that’s the schools,” Wymer said. “We want students not only to be back in school. We want them to remain in school.”

Mask-wearing joins other measures enacted by Roanoke County Public Schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including daily health screenings, improved facility ventilation, encouragement of hand-washing and staying home when sick, as well as contact tracing and quarantine protocols, cleaning and disinfection.

“This is a constant thing that we will continue to look at as a school board,” Wray said, adding that virtual options should be made available to all students. “We want to continue that option for those parents that feel they do not want kids to attend schools in a mask. That would be available to them at their discretion.”

Gathered outside in protest ahead of the 11 a.m. Friday meeting were about two dozen adults, accompanied by some children. Protesters chanted “educate, don’t suffocate,” holding signs in opposition to the mask mandate and heckling staff as they came in and out of the building.

“I’m sure all of us have received nasty emails on both sides. It certainly doesn’t help,” Moretz said. “We may not always agree on everything. It doesn’t do any good to yell and shout at each other.”

The Roanoke city School Board may take up the issue of masking and make a decision at its meeting Tuesday, said spokeswoman Kelly Sandridge.

Staff writers Tad Dickens and Jeff Sturgeon contributed to this report.

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