By Debbie Adams
The Roanoke County School Board met in a called Special Meeting on January 6 to further discuss, clarify, and reconsider a motion passed at a work session on January 4 regarding mask requirements and adherence to public health guidance concerning masks in schools.
The board voted 3-2 at that January 4 work session to make masks optional in Roanoke County Public Schools if changes are made at the state level when Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin takes office.
At the end of the lengthy work session on January 4, new board member Cheryl Facciani, (Windsor Hills District) introduced a motion to make the wearing of masks optional in Roanoke County Public Schools, effective January 15–based on information that Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin will announce an end to the mask mandate in schools when he takes office on that date.
School Board Chairman David Linden (Hollins District), Vice Chairman Brent Hudson (Catawba), and Facciani voted in favor of the optional mask rule in anticipation of the Governor’s announcement.
Mike Wray (Cave Spring) voted against the motion, requesting time to gain citizen input and advice from legal counsel.
Tim Greenway, who represents the Vinton District, voted against making masks optional “at this time” based on the legality of the move until Governor-elect Youngkin makes the actual change in policy.
The original plan of School Board members at the work session seems to have been to wait until their next meeting on January 18 to take a vote—after Youngkin takes office–but they proceeded with the vote on January 4 when Facciani requested immediate action on her motion.
The board met in closed session for almost an hour at the Special Meeting on January 6 before voting 4-1 to rescind the motion passed on Monday.
Linden, Hudson, Greenway, and Wray voted to rescind the motion. Facciani continued to support the motion to make masks optional once Glenn Youngkin takes office on January 15 and announces an end to the mask mandate.
Linden accepted responsibility for passage of the motion on January 4, with “good intentions,” but without consulting legal counsel. State Law SB1303 mandates certain mitigation strategies. Linden says that until the new Governor ends the mask mandates, “our hands are tied,” and the board, in passing the motion to make masks optional, was “speculating” on the future Governor’s actions. He stated that he wants to make masks optional, but “we can’t legally do that today.”
He is hopeful that current health mandates will be removed by Youngkin and that somehow SB1303 can be overridden before it expires in August 2022.
Facciani said she stands by her original decision and considers that the motion was simply allowing the board to prepare for Youngkin’s anticipated announcement.
Greenway said that in passing the motion on January 4, the board was “getting the cart before the horse.”
Wray said that the board needed to step back and take a look, and consider legal opinions and public opinion.
Hudson said that as he is new to the board, he is going through a learning curve. He has received communications from the public since his January 4 vote, upset that the decision was made during a school board work session, rather than during a regular school board meeting where the public could have input. It was not his intention to “ram anything through.”
Hudson believes that parents have the right to make their own decisions for their children, especially concerning health issues, but that the school board needs to wait until the state makes optional masks the law.
He has realized that the verbiage of the January 4 motion could place Roanoke County Schools in a compromising position legally. As a sheriff’s deputy, he has the ultimate respect for the law. He stands by his original statement that the school board should follow state guidelines. He also hopes to “get kids out of masks as soon as possible. I will strive to do what’s best for my children as well as for yours.”
At the January 4 work session, Dr. Rhonda Stegall updated the school board on the continuing high transmission rate in the entire state, and explained the current laws regarding masks, including:
- The CDC’s Federal Order on transportation applies to all public transportation including school buses, and regardless of the mask policy at school, passengers and drivers must wear a mask even if fully vaccinated.
- As of August 12, 2021, the Virginia State Health Commissioner Order of Public Health Emergency mandated that all individuals ages two and older must wear masks when indoors at public and private K-12 schools.
- In addition, State Law SB1303 is in effect until August 1, 2022, and requires each school board to “offer in-person instruction… in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any current applicable mitigation strategies for K-12 schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Stegall pointed out in the work session that if universal masking is made optional, the Virginia Department of Health isolation and quarantine guidance calls for longer isolation and quarantine periods, affecting in-school instruction time.
In response to the Roanoke County School Board action at the work session on January 4, Dr. Cynthia Morrow Director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health District, issued a statement on Wednesday, January 5, which read: “I need to stress the importance of maintaining universal indoor masking in our schools. Masking is currently required and should stay in place until our levels of community transmission significantly decrease. Now is not the time to experiment with our teachers’ and our children’s health.”