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Roanoke, Salem school divisions announce mask requirement

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Students and employees in Roanoke and Salem city schools will be required to wear face masks while indoors or riding buses when school starts this year.

The divisions, following others in the region, fell in line with state provisions announced in recent days as a COVID-19 uptick is occurring, mainly due to the delta variant.

The mask mandate will apply to people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine and those who have not.

Roanoke’s requirement took effect Monday and will stay in effect during at least the first nine weeks of the semester, city school officials announced.

During a Tuesday school board meeting, Chairwoman Lutheria Smith explained the lack of a board vote. Whether students and staff must mask “is not a board governance matter, that is a management decision that Mrs. White as superintendent has the authority to make. However the board does ....share that we are in full support of this mitigation strategy,” Smith said.

The school system plans to recognize a physical distancing requirement of three feet. Sanitizer dispensers and hand washing stations will be present in all schools. All schools have upgraded ventilation systems, officials said.

Masks can come off while people are eating, exercising or outdoors, officials said.

The school district, which serves 14,000 students, has identified about 60 students and about 60 employees who tested positive for COVID-19 and who exposed at least one other person in a school setting during the past year, the school website says.

Meanwhile, during a Salem School Board meeting Tuesday night, Assistant Superintendent Curtis Hicks said that as long as community transmission of COVID-19 remains high, all students and staff will be required to wear masks.

“We are all profoundly disappointed that we’re still sitting here today talking about this,” Hicks said. “Not a single one of us wants our kids to deal with this.”

Indeed, out of six parents who spoke during public comment, five were against a mask requirement. But because of public health guidelines that shifted last week, Salem School officials said they have no choice but to require masks.

“Before this changed, we were prepared to say that vaccinated students would in some cases have the option,” Hicks said, adding that the guidance could change next week. “Right now... everybody needs to wear a mask in school.”

The Salem board passed a motion unanimously that included the mask requirement.

Salem has established scalable COVID-19 mitigation strategies, with some requirements, such as masks, becoming unnecessary during times of lower community transmission.

“We’re going to do our best to keep kids safe, and hopefully things will get better,” Hicks said. “Masking is critical.”

Interim board member Teresa Sizemore-Hernandez said her 10-year-old son struggles with wearing a mask, and also had trouble with virtual learning.

“Mask or not. He hates a mask, what fifth grader doesn’t?” she said, acknowledging parents’ concerns. “If it keeps him safe, I’m fine either way.”

The division is also encouraging teachers to increase instruction time spent outside, whenever possible.

The first day of school in Roanoke is Aug. 24. The first day of school in Salem is Aug. 30.

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