By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack County Public Schools will not comply with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order two, which allows parents to decide whether or not their children will wear face masks in school, Superintendent Chris Holland said in a recorded message sent to parents via phone Wednesday night.
Face masks will continue to be required inside Accomack schools for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors until further notice, in accordance with the Virginia General Assembly’s Senate Bill 1303, Holland said.
The bill became state law in 2021 and requires public schools to offer in-person learning and follow, to the maximum extent practicable, the COVID-19 recommendations for schools as provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which include wearing face masks.
But executive order two does not prohibit schools from setting mask mandates; it allows parents to exempt their children from the mask mandates and prohibits schools from enforcing such policies.
The executive order states that parents “may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program” and those children “should not be required to wear a mask under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education, or any other state authority.”
When the school board opened its public comment period Tuesday night, only one parent spoke with concern related to the executive order.
Tonya Young, of Parksley, asked the school board to consider retaining its mask mandate to protect students like her 15-year-old daughter, who is immunocompromised and also has asthma.
Young was concerned that without the protection of face masks, other students could cough or sneeze near her daughter, who could become sick, and in her immunocompromised state, “that could be a very bad situation for her.”
Young said her daughter has had health issues since age 5 and on several occasions required medical care at a children’s hospital.
“I think that it’s very important for our children to continue to wear these masks. I’m hoping that you all will consider this … for all children,” Young said.
“We don’t want our kids to be sick, and as parents, we make that decision for them.”
Executive order two will take effect Monday, Jan. 24. Senate Bill 1303 will expire Aug. 1.
Coordinator of Student Health Services Tonya Martin reported that as of Jan. 18, Accomack had 59 new cases of COVID-19 and a seven-day average of 111 new cases per day, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
She shared a statement from Jon Richardson, chief operating officer of the Eastern Shore Health District: “We are still in a surge, and it’s really too early to know if we have reached the peak, but we should know in the next couple of weeks.”
As of Tuesday, Accomack schools had approximately 160 cases of COVID-19: more than 20 teachers, about 20 school staff members, and nearly 120 students.
Martin clarified that those numbers did not include individuals who were in quarantine for exposure to COVID-19. “The quarantine numbers are high, the amount of positives are not,” she said.
She said a school division task force is still reviewing the new CDC guidelines – which include reducing the COVID-19 quarantine period from 10 to five days – but recommendations to the school board are forthcoming.
Superintendent Chris Holland said in-person learning will continue in Accomack schools for now. “Our teachers want to teach in person, and our students want to be in the buildings.”
However, due to the number of COVID-19 cases in schools, Northampton County Public Schools scheduled virtual learning days for Friday, Jan. 21, and Monday, Jan. 24, and also will retain its mask mandate, according to its website.