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Chesterfield School Board says ‘no’ to lifting mask mandate – for now

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Chesterfield School Board members voted to keep the mask mandate in place--until they get more guidance from the state. (Photo: Charles Fishburne) 

The Chesterfield County School Board voted Thursday to have students keep wearing masks in district schools – for the time being. The vote goes against Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order Number Two, which starting Monday, will give parents the choice to mask their children or not. 

In a 3 to 2 vote, board members, including Debbie Bailey, called on Youngkin to give them more guidance on how to best handle the transition. Bailey said she supports Youngkin’s executive order but voted in favor of holding off on enforcing it over the lack of clarity.

“The point I think in us saying ‘take a pause’ is Governor Youngkin gave us one week - one week - to get operational on a whole new executive order. And it’s not that it’s not something I support, I just don’t support the aggressive timeline,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the district needs additional guidance on implementing things such as contact tracing and quarantine guidelines as well as how to ensure the safety of children with special needs and medically compromised children.

“There’s a litany of issues,” she said. “Does this apply to just educational settings? What about after-school settings? There’s so much minutiae and so many nuances that we need to look at before we literally just dive right in. I don’t want to make a mistake.”

Bailey and Chair Ann Coker both said they are waiting for the new state school superintendent to send guidance on the directives laid out in Youngkin’s order.

“It’s my intention and want to follow Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order Number Two,” Coker said. “But only when additional guidance is given by the new superintendent of public instruction.”

The Chesterfield School Board vote falls in step with nearby Richmond and Henrico public school districts, which, after Youngkin signed the order on his first day in office, almost immediately said they would not follow it.

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Prior to today’s vote, Chesterfield parents were left in limbo during the week as to how the district would respond to the governor’s directive. 

Rachelle Roberts has two children in Chesterfield schools. She spoke to VPM News prior to today’s vote.

“While I would feel much better with them [the district] having said ‘we will defy this executive order for the sake of the children,’ I feel like that’s what I would’ve done,” Roberts said. “I do understand that there are layers that I don’t understand, and I’m willing to admit that.”

Roberts said she wants to give the district the benefit of the doubt “that the reason that the decision has not been made is because they are maybe doing their due diligence to make sure that they’re making their decisions based on the right information. So fingers crossed they make the right decision.”

The board took in over 2,000 online comments about Thursday’s decision. One response asking the board to follow the executive order came from Joan Furr of the Bermuda District, saying in part:

“Please uphold Governor Youngkin’s EO to make masks optional in our schools. It is time to allow parents a voice in whether they mask their child or not. We have masked our children long enough. My granddaughter has cystic fibrosis which is a genetic illness that affects her lungs. She would be able to breathe so much better without a mask but you took away that option. She is fully ready to lose the mask. She is vaccinated and wants to be able to have her life back and not wear a mask.”

One of the comments asking for the district to keep the masks wearing in place came from Pega Brooke of the Dale District:

“As a teacher and a parent, I am aware of how hard our schools are working to keep our kids safe. However, even with masks and distancing, COVID is still spreading at a rapid rate. I am concerned about how much more of a risk my children and I will be at if these mandates are reduced. I also feel like more students are going to have to quarantine more frequently and for a longer period of time with mask mandates gone. Please vote to uphold these precautions that have been in place.”

Board member Ryan Harter was one of the no votes. In an email to VPM afterward, he said the governor’s order should be enough.

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Vice Chair Dot Heffron was the other no vote, saying in an interview with VPM afterward it was “because the motion did not include any health guidance. It was strictly based on the executive orders.” 

Heffron also argued, however, that Youngkin is overstepping his constitutional bounds.

“Article 8, Section 7 of the Constitution of Virginia empowers the school board to supervise the operation of the schools in the division that we serve,” she said. “This executive order usurps the constitution power vested in our local, democratically elected school board.”

She, as well as other board members, also cited School Board Memo 106-21 that the board adopted back in August.

“That memo upheld the superintendent's recommendation for the continuation of COVID-19 mitigation strategies and utilization of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Virginia Department of Health and county risk management,” Heffron said. “The Constitution of Virginia limits executive power. And Executive Order Two should not override the standing policies of this board.”

Once the state sends more guidance to the school board, the members will reconvene for another vote. After Thursday's meeting, it appears there will be enough votes to follow the order.