By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
The Alexandria School Board voted at a special meeting on Feb. 24 to rescind a regulation that had mandated students and staff to wear masks at all Alexandria City Public Schools as a COVID19 mitigation measure. This action followed Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) approval of Virginia Senate Bill 739, which left the decision on student mask wearing up to parents. As of Tuesday, mask wearing is optional for students in Alexandria City Public Schools, although it remains required for staff.
But board members said they “highly recommend” that all individuals continue to wear masks in ACPS buildings and vehicles for the time being, which is still considered a substantial transmission period of COVID-19.
Fairfax County Public Schools and Arlington Public Schools both also made mask ing optional for students, as of Tuesday.
During the meeting, the board discussed significant pushback the mask-optional legislation has yielded among community members, many of whom have argued against the law since its passage on Feb. 16. Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. said that the bill leaves little “wiggle room” for staff.
“Even if we change the policy, let’s say we didn’t do anything to the policy, this bill is still in effect, whether we do anything to the policy that we currently have in place or not,” Hutchings said. “That’s something that’s important for us to understand, because this bill was written in a way that really gives no wiggle room and there’s no gray. It is what it is.”
Senate Bill 739 explicitly states that parents may elect for their child to forgo wearing masks while on school property, regardless of any mandates or policies from local school boards. School districts had until Tuesday to comply with the new law.
“We serve all of our students, and I’ve said that from the beginning, regardless of what our personal views are, our job is to make decisions for the organization as a whole. And I think that is really the point of view we were doing internally in trying to keep people at the organizational level, and not what they personally felt or thought, which was even harder for us sitting around the table having those conversations,” Hutchings added.
Youngkin had previously signed an executive order on Jan. 15, stating that “recent government orders requiring virtually every child in Virginia wear masks virtually every moment they are in school have proven ineffective and impractical.”
ACPS was one of seven Virginia school districts that filed a lawsuit on Jan. 24 opposing Youngkin’s executive order.
A joint statement from the districts stated that the lawsuit was filed to defend “the right of the school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff.”
Arlington Circuit Judge Louise DiMatteo issued a temporary injunction, effectively blocking Youngkin’s prior executive order earlier this month, but the new bill renders that motion moot.
“Since day one, we have worked to empower Virginia parents who want to have a voice in the upbringing and education of their children. This is a defining moment and decisive victory for parents and kids across the Commonwealth,” Youngkin wrote in a news release. “We are reaffirming that parents matter by signing SB739, effectively giving parents the ability to opt-out of school mask mandates.”
The tone of the Feb. 24 meeting was solemn, with board members questioning what went into the decision to not implement a formal opt-in/ opt-out process.
ACPS Chief of Student Services and Equity Julie Crawford stated that the recommendation is in line with what the Virginia Department of Health has put forward. As of Feb. 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer recommends mask wearing for schools in communities with low to medium risk of COVID-19. But at the high transmission level, the CDC still recommends mask wearing indoors. As of Tuesday, Alexandria is no longer in the “high” transmission category, according to the Virginia Department of Health website.
In addressing the topic, Crawford said that apprehension cropped up surrounding the fidelity of the system involved in providing opt-in/ opt-out information to teachers and principals.
“How do we see that actually playing out in the classroom? If I’m a teacher, am I taking attendance and then cross referencing a list? Who is responsible for monitoring that piece?” Crawford said. “ … An opt-in would be a challenge for our schools to implement, and if we weren’t going to do it well, then do we need to have our families go to additional lengths to tell us that they want to opt out if we felt like it was going to be a challenge for us to do?”
She also called attention to concerns about staff potentially becoming “mask police,” rather than focusing solely on their role as instructional leaders and the social, emotional and academic needs of students.
Hutchings said that an improper system could potentially be viewed as a form of retaliation against the governor, which the bill prohibits.
“Some of the conversations we had [were], ‘What outcome are we seeking in regards to having an opt-in or opt-out?’ People could perceive that we are doing this as a retaliatory way. ‘Hey, we’re trying to make this difficult because you’re not following what we wanted to do,’ especially with the fact that we’re in a lawsuit against the governor. We just have to be very careful with sending messages to our community in that way,” Hutchings said.
Board member Michelle Rief asked about the implications of removing the mask mandate for families and students. She noted that the definition of contact tracing, for instance, changes depending on whether or not one is wearing a mask.
In response, Crawford said the transition will involve an open stream of communication, transparency and making sure staff knows what they can and cannot ask of students. The CDC definition of contact tracing, she said, refers to three feet for masked children and six feet for unmasked children.
Crawford clarified that students are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in ACPS buses and vehicles. However, ACPS staff must continue to wear masks in school facilities and vehicles.
Families with immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable individuals are encouraged to take advantage of school support teams, Crawford said. She suggested posting signage at lunch tables requesting that students returning from day six through 10 of testing don’t sit at certain tables.
“Then, if my grandmother was at my house, I could sit there with some degree of assurance that people who are around me maskless eating might not be at the table with me,” Crawford said. “We’re trying to think creatively. We can’t assure because we’re not going to stand there with a checklist. We can’t do that to students in a way that respects everybody’s privacy.”
During discussion, board member Abdel Elnoubi expressed concern regarding potential messaging that might come with eliminating the mask mandate.
“I think if we do that, we need to be very clear on the messaging we’re sending out, and that we’re not doing this because we don’t want you to wear a mask anymore. We’re doing this because we have to, because we want to abide by the law,” Elnoubi said.
He emphasized the importance of putting the policy in context and communicating with community members that the board still strongly encourages mask wearing, even though they can’t enforce it. In an ACPS newsletter that went out last week, staff highly recommended that students wear masks, especially during high transmission periods. It also included a link to the senate bill and information about the CDC guidelines.
“We’re still moving forward with all of the other health and safety mitigations, but we are going to continue to highly recommend for families to continue to wear masks during this high transmission time,” Hutchings said.
Both staff and board members emphasized the importance of maintaining respect throughout the process and amid any differing opinions that have and may continue to arise.
“My biggest concern is how people treat each other. We all know as educators that you have to provide explicit instruction on how you want the students to behave,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said at the end of the meeting. “We are going to have kids coming from families who are very vocal about either side of this issue and we have to teach our students that when we are in our school buildings, we respect one another.”
Board member Willie Bailey made a motion to rescind the mask ordinance, with board member W. Christopher Harris seconding. The motion passed unanimously, 9-0.