CHRISTIANSBURG — The Montgomery County School Board on Thursday voted 4-2 to keep an indoor masking mandate in place, a move that follows a state law passed last year but runs counter to an order Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued shortly after he formally took office.
With the vote, Montgomery County Public Schools became one of the latest districts in the state to continue requiring masks within school buildings in light of Youngkin’s recent and much debated order to lift the mandate. School boards across the state are now voting in different ways on the issue, and some are asking for more direction from Youngkin’s administration.
Jamie Bond and Dana Partin were the Montgomery County board members who voted against the measure Thursday night, with the two elected officials echoing the viewpoints of several parents who spoke out during the meeting and argued that masking should be a parental choice instead of a condition imposed by the school district.
The school board’s vote reaffirms a decision the elected body made back in August when it narrowly approved following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in schools — a condition SB 1303 specifically dictates.
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While the federal health agency has adjusted some of its guidance on other points over the past few months, it has maintained its recommendation of indoor masking in K-12 settings for anyone 2 years old and older — students, teachers, staff and visitors — regardless of vaccination status.
Just as Thursday’s decision came amid the ongoing surge of the highly transmissible omicron variant, the vote this past summer occurred around the same time as the rise of the past delta variant.
One fact MCPS officials highlighted to school board members was the reporting of 238 COVID-19 cases among students and staff just last week alone, a figure they said exceeded the monthly totals in almost every month this school year.
School board member Penny Franklin pointed to that figure, among other things, in her support of continuing masking for the time being.
“That [figure] just says loud and clear there is an issue we need to make sure we stay on top of,” she said.
Franklin said she is personally looking forward to when the district no longer requires masking indoors, but she added that another variant is surging. Research shows that it seems to generally cause milder symptoms than previous variants, but is still highly contagious, she said.
“It’s still making people sick,” Franklin said.
Before voting Thursday, the board heard from several parents and area residents who voiced opposing views on the matter and reflected the greater polarization over the topic of the pandemic.
While some speakers voiced strong support for continued masking indoors and described it as a reasonable condition given the ongoing circumstances, others argued that the decision should be left up to parents. Some also voiced widely disputed claims about masking and the science over COVID-19, including the argument that the face coverings are largely ineffective.
Mike Scarry, whose children attend Christiansburg Primary and Christiansburg Elementary schools, said he knows masks aren’t considered perfect, but remain among the strongest tools for preventing the spread of the virus.
“They’re one of the best tools we have to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and are a far better option than, say, surveillance testing, in my opinion,” said Scarry, who voiced support for continuing the indoor masking requirement.
Another point Scarry touched on — and which others, including some school board members, brought up — is the fact children are required to be up to date on their vaccinations to attend school. He said he doesn’t view masking as much different of a subject. He said parents can choose to not vaccinate their children, but would also not be allowed to enroll them in public schools.
Ashley Bond, a Christiansburg resident, said she’s not against people who choose to mask. She, however, argued the issue is a parental rights one.
“Our rights as parents have been stripped from us and left to a few school board members,” said Bond, who spoke out against a continued indoor masking mandate. “Why should the school board be the authority on my children’s health instead of me as their parent?”
Bond said she’s aware of the CDC guidance, but said it’s still not legislation. She said school officials have also been diligent about monitoring students and quickly sending them home when they begin showing signs of illness.
“This is not a law or mandate. It’s a recommendation,” she said about the CDC guidance. “Parents know what’s best for their kids.”
The school board members who voted against the masking requirement reiterated some of the points shared by the speakers against the mandate, particularly the issue of parental choice.
Jamie Bond said she found it unfair that the viewpoints of some families didn’t seem to be taken more seriously.
“I have a different opinion and lots of other parents in this county have a different opinion,” she said. “You have to hear the families that do think differently.”
Partin referenced some previous research shared by New River Health District director Noelle Bissell, who has frequently come before the school board since the start of the pandemic to share various data on the virus and the crisis in general.
Partin said it was her understanding from some research shared by Bissell that there appeared to only be a “minute’ difference in COVID-19 infections between children who regularly mask and those who don’t mask.
“I thought that was pretty interesting,” said Partin, who later added that other mitigation measures such as the air filtration one are still in place.
Partin said the virtual school option also remains for students who don’t feel safe attending in person.
“It’s time for parents to have a choice,” she said. “The executive order [from Youngkin] does not say we’re taking away masks. Any parent that wants their child to be masked, the masking will continue.”
School board chairwoman Sue Kass, however, said the idea is to try to keep people as safe as possible and reiterated the previously expressed point about children needing to be up to date on vaccinations before attending school.
“And so therefore what we’re saying is you can’t go to school unless they wear a mask,” Kass said.
While board members on either side of the issue referenced Bissell’s past presentation in making their points, the health district director’s most recent comments on masking do seem to support the school division’s reaffirmed policy.
Bissell told the school board last week that masks should remain in place, especially as the area and the rest of the state is experiencing a surge due to omicron. She even addressed the different kinds of masks, including the N95 that many experts now strongly recommend over the surgical counterparts.
Bissell, however, did say there is hope that the transition to an endemic, which is when masking requirements could start being, could start after the ongoing omicron surge. She said there’s been encouraging data from certain countries, which came off of surges as quickly as they went up.