Alexandria high school students protest optional mask policy

Alexandria high school students protest optional mask policy
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Students gathered outside Alexandria City High School on Wednesday afternoon to protest the School Board’s recent decision to leave mask wearing decisions up to parents of students in Alexandria city schools.

Carrying signs that read “Masks save lives” and “Wear your masks,” the group of more than 20 students argued that mask wearing is a tool to combat the spread of COVID-19 that not every student can take for granted.

“We have many students who may feel comfortable or confident saying, ‘I feel comfortable that I can avoid or withstand a COVID-19 infection.’ That is not true for all members of our community, and we need to be cognizant that your choice to wear a mask doesn’t just impact you. So, we’re doing this for every member who may be vulnerable or may otherwise want to be safe,” Katherine Radt, an ACHS junior and demonstration organizer, said.

The School Board’s decision to make mask wearing optional for Alexandria City Public Schools students – but not staff – came in response to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) approval of Virginia Senate Bill 739. Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. and several School Board members argued that the bill left little wiggle room for local school districts. ACPS continues to recommend that students wear masks in ACPS buildings and vehicles, although it is not required. Since the law went into effect on Tuesday, Fairfax County Public Schools and Arlington Public Schools have also made masking optional for students, as well as staff.

The shift in ACPS’ mask wearing policies also comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention altered its guidelines to no longer recommend mask wearing in school districts with low to medium levels of COVID-19 transmission. As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Health registered Alexandria as no longer having “high” levels of transmission.

After hearing word of Youngkin’s intent to sign Senate Bill 739, the student organizers said they were shocked but also inspired to take action.

“The immediate thought is just, ‘Oh no’ because this puts us and people we care about and the community at large in danger. Then, the next thought was, ‘We have to do something,’” Alex Radt, one of the organizers, said. “Clearly that’s what we did, and we would hope that anybody else who feels like this would feel the same way and also try to do something, even if it’s just saying to people in the hallway you see not wearing a mask, ‘Hey, put a mask on.’”

According to Katherine Radt, the dream would be for the School Board’s lawsuit to succeed, “but at the end of the day as long as our student body is wearing masks and keeping all of us safe, I think we’re happy.”

The student organizers, who pulled together the demonstration in less than a week, have more in mind than just waving signs along King Street. According to student Eliana Rougle, they hope to reach out to students in other school districts, as well as parents in local parent teacher associations, to get them involved. They also aim to create an educational video about the benefits of mask wearing that can be used in elementary, middle and high schools.

“We hope to continue outreach and work with schools across Virginia, especially those in areas with lower vaccination rates,” Rougle said. “ … We’re hoping to connect with PTAs since parents have a lot of influence over the decisions that their children make, especially younger children. And we’re hoping to continue messages of encouragement in our schools and spread it to other schools.”

The organizers said their efforts are tied exclusively to mask wearing and not vaccines, although Katherine Radt said “we do support any efforts that would protect the community from COVID-19.”

While the students are focused on mask wearing, Rougle said she hopes their efforts will inspire other students to take up activism.

“We hope students in our school can remember that even if your action that you take on an issue that you care about makes a small impact, any impact and any progress is important,” Rougle said.