ROCKY MOUNT — The Franklin County School Board voted 5-3 Monday night to allow parents to decide whether their children will wear a mask while in school.
The change went into effect on Tuesday.
Bernice Cobbs, superintendent, explained in a statement that all other health mitigation plans will remain in place, except for desk shields. However, the shields can still be requested by parents.
Students still will be required to wear masks while on school buses and on days six through 10 for individuals after they have tested positive or have been identified as having been in close contact with someone with COVID-19.
“Please talk with your children about your decision and expectations about them wearing or not wearing masks and ask that they respect others,” Cobbs said. “Teachers will not be asked to enforce parents’ mask decisions in the classroom.”
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The Franklin County vote happened as a bill blocking local school boards from mandating masks in schools for students reached Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk.
Senate Bill 739 cleared the GOP-controlled House along party lines Monday in a 52-48 vote, days after clearing the Democrat-controlled Senate with support from three Democrats. The bill could take effect in less than a week.
In Franklin County, Cobbs noted that the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry standard states that school employees are required to wear masks in areas of substantial or high community transmission regardless of vaccination status. The division is in a “high transmission” phase right now, which means all employees are still required to wear masks.
Julie Nix, chairperson and Blue Ridge District representative, Arlet Greer, Blackwater District representative, Dawn McCray, Boone District representative, Kevin David, member at large, and Carletta Whiting, Snow Creek District representative, all voted in favor of making school masking a parental decision.
Jon Atchue, Gills Creek District representative, Jeff Worley, vice chairperson and Rocky Mount District representative, and P.D. Hambrick, the Union Hall District representative, voted against it.
When David made the motion, he received a round of applause from those in attendance.
Atchue said prior to the vote, “I’ve given this issue a lot of thought and see it through three perspectives: a common sense perspective, a legal perspective and a moral perspective.”
He said that based on the data he is looking at, he doesn’t feel COVID-19 can be classified as having transitioned to an endemic phase. “I would be much more inclined to move away from masks if our vaccination rates were not among the lowest in the commonwealth,” he went on to say.
McCray said, “I’ve dove down and I’ve looked at the SOL scores for the elementary schools. While I cannot prove causation, there is a strong correlation between the low reading scores and the masking policies.” She said it is because of the correlation she sees between student achievement and masking that she feels it is time to remove the universal masking policy.
Nix said that her vote was impacted by the changing legal landscape surrounding school masking policies. “I follow the law. I have followed the law from the start. I’m not going to vote against something that I know is the law and that’s the way it is,” she said.
According to the division’s COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday, 14 staff members and 52 students have tested positive for the virus so far this month.
“Our positivity rate is higher than it was last year, but the numbers are going down drastically,” Jason Guilliams, director of operations, said on Monday.
The decision comes after a Jan. 22 special meeting in which the board gridlocked 4-4 on establishing a timeline for future possible changes to the school mask policy.
At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, the school board voted to implement a universal masking policy. Originally, families did not have to provide documentation for exemptions. They simply had to notify their child’s school that they wanted an exemption. Approximately 1,200 students had religious and medical exemptions at the start of the year.
After a surge in COVID-19 cases in the school division, the board voted on Sept. 13 to require documentation for exemptions to its universal masking policy. The change required families who wanted an exemption to apply for one by submitting a form to school principals.
Division leaders screened the applications. According to the division at the time, if an accommodation was “reasonable and feasible” a letter approving the request would be emailed to guardians. If the criteria for an exemption was not met, the division contacted guardians to discuss alternative accommodations in lieu of masks.
Following the documentation requirement, the number of students with exemptions dropped from 1,200 to 240.
Since the universal masking policy was put in place, the composition of the board has changed. Three new members, McCray, Whiting and David, were elected in November. All three said during the campaign that they supported masks on students being a matter of parental choice.
Earlier this month, the division stopped contact tracing for every individual case of COVID-19. A statement by Cobbs at the time said the division will consult with the Virginia Department of Health if multiple cases of the virus occur within an identified group, like a sports team or school.