By Stefanie Jackson – Parents at Tuesday night’s Accomack County School Board meeting reacted to a Virginia General Assembly bill that has passed both the Senate and House of Delegates and will end school mask mandates permanently after it’s signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Sierra Birch, a parent who started an online petition to end the Accomack schools mask mandate, questioned the school board’s decision to retain the mandate in spite of an executive order signed by the new governor on his first day in office, which allowed parents to exempt their children from wearing masks in school.
She pointed out that the school board decision contradicted not only the executive order but Accomack voters, 61% of whom voted for Youngkin.
Birch said she had emailed all nine school board members about the mask mandate; she received only one response, which was part of a mass message replying to every person who had emailed about the mandate.
She called out the school board for its inconsistent responses to state government rules and regulations.
During the administration of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, when the school board was discussing implementing a policy on the treatment of transgender students, the board noted it had to follow state code to avoid lawsuits. However, the board chose not to comply with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s second executive order.
Birch said the school board is using children as “political pawns,” and “parents will not forget your blatant disregard come election time.”
Jessica Lewis, a Chincoteague parent, noted that Youngkin has returned Senate Bill 739 to the General Assembly with a recommendation to include a March 1 deadline for school boards to comply with the new law. (The recommendation was approved by the Senate on Tuesday.)
She reminded the school board that when parents spoke out against the proposed transgender student policy, they were informed they were “barking up the wrong tree,” but “our children will no longer fall victim to the policies you vote into place that push your personal, political beliefs. You cannot cherry pick which executive orders to follow and which ones to disregard. … It is you who are barking up the wrong tree.”
Lewis contended, “Accomack County Public Schools has a long history of being reactive instead of proactive, waiting until something happens before scrambling to make a sloppily improvised decision … passively waiting to see how every other county decides to handle something …”
“The time has come for this pattern of weakness and indecisiveness to end. … This amendment is coming and this law is here. What do you plan to do?” she asked the school board.
School Calendar Update
Superintendent Chris Holland discussed the school calendar, which was adversely impacted by a snow day falling on a scheduled exam day on Friday, Jan. 21. Exams had to be rescheduled for Monday and Tuesday of the next week, followed by teacher work days on Wednesday and Thursday.
The third nine weeks began Friday, Jan 28, and schools had to be advised Monday, Feb. 1, on issuing report cards for the second nine weeks.
After extending both the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and accounting for snow days and early dismissals, only 3 days and 4.5 hours of inclement weather time was left on the calendar with five months left in the school year, Holland noted.
“Due to the unpredictable weather conditions, to ensure the safety of our students and staff, we adjust the calendar,” which is a normal practice, he said.
Holland proposed adding an extra day to the school calendar to help mitigate the issue of the dwindling inclement weather time.
There was some disagreement and confusion of school board members over the matter.
School board member Janet Turner said the board’s policy states the school board, not the superintendent, establishes the school calendar.
School board members Jesse Speidel and Edward Taylor questioned the need to add a day to the calendar now instead of waiting until the remaining inclement weather time has been exhausted.
Holland asked the school board to trust him to make the right decision and noted that any unused inclement weather time will be given back to teachers at the end of the school year.
Taylor asked if that unused time was ever given back to staff; Holland said it was not but “I’ll look at it this year.”
“Are we going to look at it, or are we going to do something about it?” Taylor asked twice, without a reply.
“Has this already been decided?” asked school board member Camesha Handy.
Chairman Ronnie Holden said “yes,” prompting Handy to ask, “What are we voting for?”
A motion was made to accept Holland’s proposal and passed in a 6-3 vote, with Speidel, Taylor, and Turner opposed.
Holland announced that Accomack schools will hold prom this year, but it will be outdoors due to COVID-19. He observed that a mask order remains in effect. Holland added that at the suggestion of principals, the outdoor prom will feature a “red carpet” for the grand march.
Holland gave the COVID-19 health update in the absence of Coordinator of Student Health Services Tonya Martin.
As of Feb. 7, Accomack schools had 13 students and two staff members who had tested positive for COVID-19, including four students and one staff member at Chincoteague Elementary School, three students at Chincoteague High School, and six students and one staff member at Tangier Combined School.
“We still require masks; we’re in a situation where kids are getting sick,” Holland said. “We stay pretty busy during the day just dealing with COVID … it’s a lot to it.”