By Stefanie Jackson – An Accomack student was suspended for five days for refusing to wear a face mask in school on Monday, even though his father had exempted him from the school mask mandate as permitted by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order two, which took effect that day.
Ethan Hoyle, an eighth grader at Arcadia Middle School, knew what the consequences would be for his action, but he was “standing up for what he believed was right,” his father, William Dewey, told the Eastern Shore Post Jan. 25.
Ethan had been following the data on COVID-19 and observed that states with the most COVID-19 outbreaks also were states with mask mandates. Believing that face masks are ineffective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Ethan wanted to respectfully express his disagreement with his school district’s mask mandate, Dewey said.
His father called the Accomack school board last week to give notice of his son’s planned demonstration.
Dewey said Arcadia Middle School staff were “absolutely awesome” in their handling of the situation on Monday.
Ethan wore a face mask on the bus Monday morning and did not remove it until he arrived at school, because his father wanted the reason for Ethan’s suspension in writing but did not want the bus to be stopped on the road for a prolonged period and create a safety hazard, Dewey said.
Ethan later spent five hours protesting in front of the Accomack County administration building, holding up signs stating, “Suspended From School 5 Days For Not Wearing Mask.” His father ran ads on a local radio station stating his opposition to the school mask policies.
Despite the issue at Arcadia Middle School, Accomack schools Superintendent Chris Holland was overall “very pleased with the students in Accomack County on how the behavior was, how they took the masks very seriously. … I was proud of the staff and the students,” he said.
“Out of 4,831 students as of January 24th, we only had one problem, so that’s unbelievable,” Holland said.
Accomack schools kept their mask mandate because of “a safety concern due to the rise of positive COVID cases on the Eastern Shore. … We want to keep our schools open and we want our students, staff, and teachers safe, and the students want to be in the building,” he said.
The Accomack school board on Jan. 18 voted 8-1 to retain its school mask mandate, with District 1 school board member Jesse Speidel opposed. The item did not appear on the meeting agenda and only one citizen addressed the issue during the public comment period. The vote was held at the end of the meeting, following the closed session.
Both Accomack and Northampton school divisions retained their mask mandates and notified parents of the decision last week via letter.
Holland’s letter, dated Jan. 20, said students who “choose to be defiant” by not wearing masks in school will be suspended from school for five days, and students who refuse to wear masks on the bus will be suspended from the bus for 10 days – the same policy that has been in effect since at least Oct. 7, 2021.
Northampton schools Superintendent Eddie Lawrence’s letter, dated Jan. 21, did not indicate any specific disciplinary action for a student who refuses to wear a mask in school. When he spoke to the Eastern Shore Post on Monday, Lawrence declined to provide any details about what would happen to a student who refused to wear a mask but said, “to stay in school and go to class, you have to wear a mask.”
Executive order two appears to contain a loophole that allows schools to discipline students for not wearing masks even if their parents have exempted the children from their school’s mask mandate. The order states 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” yet doesn’t prohibit schools from disciplining students who refuse to wear masks.
Holland and others have cited Senate Bill 1303 as the basis for retaining mask mandates.
Senate Bill 1303 became law in 2021 and directed Virginia school divisions to offer in-person learning five days a week and follow, to the maximum extent practicable, the COVID-19 school guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – which includes requiring masks in schools regardless of individuals’ vaccination status. The law will expire Aug. 1.
Executive order two cites Virginia code 1-240.1, which has been law since 2013 and states, “A parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child.”
According to the website www.parentalrights.org/states/va/, “Any statute that seeks to interfere with a parent’s fundamental rights survives constitutional scrutiny only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.”
It could be argued that school mask mandates are a matter of public health and constitute a “compelling state interest.” Conversely, the effect of mask mandates on public health is disputed.
Executive order two points out that the CDC recommends masks even though “its research has found no statistically significant link between mandatory masking for students and reduced transmission of COVID-19.”
Parents and teachers have observed that “many children wear masks incorrectly, providing little or no health benefit. The masks worn by children are often ineffective because they are made from cloth material, and they are often not clean, resulting in the collection of impurities, including bacteria,” the executive order notes.
Previously issued government orders are now outdated, such as the Virginia state health commissioner’s order of Aug. 12, 2021, which “explicitly relates to the Delta variant and not the Omicron variant, which results in less severe illness,” the executive order continued.
Even though Youngkin’s executive order does not explicitly ban mask mandates, seven Virginia school boards announced Monday they are suing the governor over the order: Alexandria City, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Hampton City, Prince William County, and Richmond.
Some families are pushing back against school mask mandates. As of Wednesday, nearly 350 parents and concerned citizens had signed a petition at www.change.org, calling for the Accomack school board to reverse its decision on mask mandates.
The petition was started by Sierra Birch, who wrote in a Jan. 23 email that the “Accomack County School Board has voted 8-1 in opposition of their constituents, who voted 60 percent in favor of Youngkin, to continue mandating masks for our students.”
“Parents are outraged at this political warfare against our children,” she said.
Nearby Virginia Beach schools appear to have struck a balance between mask mandates and the governor’s executive order.
According to a Jan. 20 WAVY report, the Virginia Beach school board voted 9-2 to amend its mask policy, allowing parents to exempt their children from school mask mandates.
However, Virginia Beach students must continue wearing face masks in school buses or find alternate transportation to and from school.
Lawrence noted that retaining the Northampton schools mask mandate was a “no-win situation” because no matter what decision was reached, some parents would disapprove.
Holland indicated that the Accomack schools mask mandate could be reversed later this school year if COVID-19 case numbers drop.
“We’re looking at the data, and it could be reconsidered. We’ll have to look at the numbers. Right now, the numbers are high,” he said, but “we’re always looking at trying to make it better.”