ROCKY MOUNT — The Franklin County School Board voted 7-1 Monday night to require documentation for mask exemptions.
The decision reverses a unanimous Aug. 9 vote that required masks for all students and staff, but explicitly stated that the school system would not require any paperwork for those seeking religious or medical exemptions. That vote was a compromise after an attempt to impose a mask mandate that strictly followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines failed 4-4.
Within the first two weeks of the new school year, at least 1,225 students had mask exemptions — about 20% of the student body — as opposed to 15 students during the previous school year. Hundreds of students have been placed in quarantine in recent weeks, some more than once, causing many missed days of school, staff said Monday.
The time and effort devoted to contact tracing is “leaving little room for teaching and learning, especially at the high school and middle school levels, and at those elementary schools where we’re seeing a peak,” Superintendent Bernice Cobbs said.
Teachers and staff are overwhelmed trying to track and teach students who are being quarantined and missing in-person class, Cobbs said. “It has been a disruption to the learning environment. Our staff is burning both ends of the candles.”
The school system needs to do everything it can to keep schools open, because it’s better for pupils to be in school in person, especially if they are going to make up for education missed during the previous school year, when schools were physically shut down, she said.
“Some of our students already have missed 16 or more days of in-person learning, and we know the power of in-person learning, of students interacting with their teachers, on a day to day basis,” she said. “So therefore I am very concerned about the learning gap.”
The forms Cobbs presented were modeled on those used by other school systems, and were reviewed by the school system’s interim attorney, Micah Schwartz with Virginia law firm McGuireWoods. The school board’s previous attorney, Stephen Maddy, resigned suddenly Sept 2.
Staff will use the information filled out on the forms to determine what accommodations can and should be made for students with approved exemptions, said Assistant Superintendent Sue Rogers.
Of the two board members who have expressed the most sympathy toward critics of mask mandates during the months the debate has raged, Blackwater District Representative Arlet Greer signaled a change of heart before the vote on Cobbs’ recommendation took place.
During visits she made in the past week to schools in the district, “the students that I talked to, they want to stay in school. The teachers want to teach in person, and the administrators desire to have the school day to instruct the students rather than spending so much time doing contact tracing,” Greer said.
“I’m not saying that I agree with the efficacy of masks,” she said, adding that she said she hoped parents would see the issue her way. “Our whole goal here is to keep our children in school and educate them, and my pride will allow me to say that in order to make that happen ... let’s try another avenue, let’s see if it will work.” She said she hoped the board would revisit the mask issue once conditions improve.
Boone District Representative Donna Cosmato specifically objected to the religious exemption forms, arguing that those who do not want to wear masks because of a sincerely held religious belief should not have to explain why in detail, and went on to cast the sole vote in opposition to Cobbs’ proposal.
Board member-at-large Penny Blue highlighted a letter from the Virginia Department of Health that urged the Franklin County school district to immediately require masks for all students and to make additional accommodations for those with exemptions in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Blue cited the letter in arguing that the original proposal Cobbs proffered to the board allowed too much time for households to turn in the exemption forms, potentially risking further spread.
“We got a letter from the health department, telling us that we have to do something different from a health perspective and from a legal perspective,” she said. “Another three weeks, people still coming to school, not wearing masks, and these teachers are overworked, it’s just not sustainable.”
Greer countered that parents needed that additional time to schedule doctor appointments. Blue’s proposal to tighten the schedule passed 6-2, with Greer and Cosmato voting no.
Students without approved forms will be required to wear masks starting Sept. 30.
Also during Monday’s meeting, Rogers told the board that students in quarantine have the ability to come back to school sooner if they can show negative test results for COVID-19, but the tests are not affordable for some families, so the school district is looking to set up a system that would offer tests at each school building, with the test results sent to parents.
Before the proposed change to mask exemptions was considered, the board heard from health experts, including Dr. Justin Price, who treats COVID-19 patients.
“I’m kind of the COVID doctor at Roanoke Memorial, so this is all I’ve done for a year and a half. I’ve seen more COVID than anybody else on this side of the state, at least sick people,” he said.
Price used statistics and studies to discuss the risks of children requiring hospitalization because of COVID-19. While he said the available statistics don’t show much difference for students in terms of making masks required or optional, requiring them for staff has been shown to have definitive benefits. He emphasized improving ventilation systems in schools, and especially stressed that kids are most at risk in communities with low vaccination rates.
“Get vaccinated. Especially adults,” he said.
In Franklin County, 41% of the population has received the vaccine, with a vaccinated adult population of 48%, about 20% lower than the overall state percentage, Price said.
“The fact that we have a low adult immunization rate puts our kids three times as likely to require hospitalization” than in the states with the highest vaccination rates, he said.
During a public comment session at the meeting’s start that lasted more than an hour, eight teachers painted a dire picture of the situation in the school system, describing more than 1,000 students in quarantine, more than 50 staff members sick with COVID-19 and those who aren’t sick falling behind as they fill in for their absent colleagues. All demanded that the board reverse course on its masking policy.
A number of the other speakers evoked Christianity and patriotism as they expressed anger at the board for casting any doubt on the motives of those parents and students who have requested mask exemptions. One speaker asserted that a law passed by both houses of the General Assembly and signed by the governor wasn’t actually a law and claimed the school board had the power to override it.
Every speaker who denounced mask-wearing and critical race theory received applause from their allies.