Chesapeake families, teachers preparing to return to school after masks made optional for students

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Posted at 9:25 PM, Dec 29, 2021

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - It's been a tough year for Chesapeake elementary school teacher Nicole Sperry, whose 10-year-old daughter, Teresa, died earlier this year from COVID-19.

“COVID has officially given me PTSD to a point that I am legit scared,” Sperry said.

Sperry started her teaching career in Chesapeake Public Schools this past February during the pandemic.

“I love being in the class that I’m in,” she said. “Any of my kids that I teach, I feel that they’re my kids as well.”

She's concerned about going back to the classroom in January after CPS leaders decided to make masks optional for students starting January 3.

CPS Director of Communications Dr. Christopher Vail released this statement to News 3 Wednesday about the decision:

“At the December 13, 2021, board meeting, our School Board directed School Administration to make masks for students, COVID-19 vaccines, and testing for student athletes optional beginning January 3, 2022. As a result, masks will be highly encouraged on school property, especially for non-vaccinated students, but not required starting January 3, 2022. It is important to remember that mask-wearing helps keep students in school as it lessens the likelihood of the need for quarantine. Families will not have to opt-out of masking nor will there be any paperwork required. However, masks are still required on school buses, as per the federal requirements. At this time, there is still a mask requirement (regardless of vaccination status) in place for school employees and all visitors.”

“I think it’s a very reckless decision, especially with the COVID numbers going up,” Sperry said. “I knew eventually, after losing Teresa, that one day we would have the masks lifted. But, I always imagined it was going to be when the numbers were at the lowest, not when they’re at their highest.”

CPS parent Caren Yarosh said her daughters will continue wearing masks when they return to elementary and middle school in the new year.

“I feel like they’re trying to make a decision, as a whole, that includes an entire population of people. I don’t think there’s one answer that is going to fit everybody,” Yarosh said. “I know nobody’s comfortable in them, but it still makes me a little nervous for them not to have that little bit of protection.”

“I think I prefer to wear the masks, at least until I’m vaccinated, just to play it safe,” Yarosh’s daughter, Evelyn, told News 3.

News 3 also talked with Reagan Davis, President of the Chesapeake Education Association, ahead of the return from winter break.

“As educators, we want nothing more than our students to be with us, so we may not have all of our students with us during this school year,” Davis said reacting to the decision.

Davis’s group sent a survey to members shortly after the move to make masks optional in the district was made.

“When I read through social media, and read different contacts I’ve had with me, they express a lot of concern. They are scared,” Davis said. “We don’t know if our seating charts will have to change. We don’t know if we’re going to have to increase distancing. We just know we’re going to show up Monday like everything is perfectly fine.”

News 3 also reached out to the Virginia Department of Health about the decision, as well as the Public Health Emergency Order announced by Gov. Ralph Northam in August, requiring universal masking in all indoor settings in Virginia’s public and private K-12 schools.

READ: Indoor universal mask mandate issued for all Virginia K-12 schools

VDH officials released this statement to News 3:

“VDH strongly advises Virginia K-12 schools to maintain mask requirements for all individuals aged two and older when indoors. This recommendation is consistent with guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which currently recommends [] universal masking in K-12 schools. It is also consistent with recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that children two years and older wear masks indoors in public settings during times of substantial or high transmission, and also to wear masks while in school as per CDC guidance. AAP also provides an endorsement about the use of masks indoors (or in other situations, such as crowded outdoor settings) for children here [].

VDH officials are concerned that removing a mask requirement in K12 Schools, during a time when a surge in COVID-19 cases is anticipated due to the holidays, will unnecessarily create an environment in which students and staff, and their families at home, will be more vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission in school. VDH is closely tracking the COVID-19 including Variants of Concern such as Delta and Omicron. While there is still more to understand about the Omicron variant, implementation of layered and concurrent prevention strategies in schools, including masking, is strongly recommended to slow transmission and protect against severe illness and death.

Currently, the level of community transmission of COVID-19 is high [] across Virginia, including in Chesapeake. Students aged 5-11 years of age are only recently eligible for their first dose (eligibility opened November 3rd). Although vaccination rates in older adolescents in Chesapeake are somewhat higher and improving, only 9.3% of 5-11 year olds in Chesapeake are fully vaccinated. It will take time for vaccination rates among 5-11 year olds to rise to levels comparable to those of older age groups.

Finally, the Order of the State Health Commissioner requiring all individuals aged two and older to wear masks when indoors at public and private K-12 schools still remains in full force and effect. All individuals are expected to comply with this Public Health Order. Any parent or guardian of a student aggrieved by a school board action may consult with an attorney as to how to proceed and may want to review Code of Virginia § 22.1-87.”

VDH officials also told News 3, according to VDH data as of Wednesday afternoon, 12.1% of children 5-11 years of age are fully vaccinated.

On Thursday the Chesapeake Education Association said, "After the announcement of the Chesapeake Public Schools to conduct a special School Board meeting on December 31, 2021, the Chesapeake Education Association urges leadership at all levels in Chesapeake Public Schools, including our School Board, to support the health and safety of all students, employees, and their families. We must follow CDC guidelines for mitigation strategies to the fullest extent possible, which include masking.”

The CEA also said they will be at a Special Meeting of the School Board which is now scheduled to happen Friday, December 31 at 4 p.m.