HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – With the start of school just weeks away and with millions of kids under 12 like kindergartener Jamari, 5, who are still not eligible for the vaccine, some parents concerned about the Delta variant believe masking up in class is the way to go.
“They did it last year; they should do it again this year,” said Jamari’s mother, Chiquita Thorne of Norfolk.
Norfolk Public Schools parent Shalonda Riddick agreed.
“I don’t mind the mask, but I prefer a shield better,” Riddick said. “I mean mask, shield, whatever - I’m fine with that.”
The issue over masks is sparking a renewed debate after Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va.) COVID-19 briefing Thursday. He mentioned a new law requiring public schools to follow CDC guidelines, which recently reversed its stance on masks in classrooms recommending everyone wear them regardless of vaccination status.
Northam said the law is meant to keep people safe, but he stopped short of enforcing mandatory mask wearing.
“It's the law of the land, and we expect our school districts throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia to follow the law,” said Northam.
“It would require a school board vote for it to be changed or overturned,” said York County School Board Chairman Brett Higginbotham. “Currently, the deputy county attorney is reviewing the governor's announcement, and she will provide counsel to the board which would determine our next steps.”
Chesapeake Public Schools spokesperson Dr. Chris Vail said the school district’s leadership team is researching and investigating the legislation. He said the school board and the leadership team will need to weigh in on the issue because they voted to make masks optional.
“The school district's leadership team is currently working on the plan for the fall and will take Governor Northam's announcement from today into advisement,” Vail said.
The issue continues to cause division.
“Masks are an overreaction that we can stand up against,” said one York County parent at Wednesday’s school board meeting.
Sincere Wright, a 10th grade student with Norfolk Public Schools, does not want to wear a mask this school year.
“I don’t feel like wearing a mask all day,” Wright said. “I need to breathe.”
Chiquita Thorne disagreed.
“I think they should wear them,” she said. “The better, the safer.”
If schools don’t comply with CDC guidance, a spokeswoman for the governor said, "It's a state law, so it could put them in legal jeopardy."
Several school districts responded to Northam’s comments on the new law.
Portsmouth Public Schools spokesperson Lauren Nolasco sent a statement that read:
As for the upcoming school year, the School Board of the City of Portsmouth will be discussing the division’s reopening plan, including guidance around masks at its annual retreat, which is this Saturday. I can also share that the division has always followed state guidance in regards to mitigation strategies and it will be administration's recommendation at the retreat that the division continue to do so at this point.
Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence sent a statement that read:
We will be meeting with health department and their medical professionals early next week to review in advance of our recommendation to the Board on August 10.
VBEA President Kathleen Slinde sent a statement that read:
As we have stated throughout this pandemic, the health and safety of students and staff is our top priority. The VBEA supports safety measures that will allow us to return to full in-person instruction as soon as possible.
Norfolk Public Schools spokesperson Maddie Curott sent a statement that read:
Norfolk Public Schools continues to follow the most current CDC guidelines as it relates to mask wearing inside its schools. At this time, the City of Norfolk School Board and NPS administration have not had any further discussion regarding a mask policy for this upcoming school year.
Newport News Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Price sent a statement that read:
Information about masks and other mitigation strategies for the 2021-22 school year will be shared with families, students and staff in the coming weeks.
Hampton City Schools spokesperson Kellie Goral sent a statement that read:
All grade levels will operate five days a week, in-person, using a traditional school day/bell schedule. As students return to the classroom, masks will be required for all students and staff (PreK-12) in the school building and while riding on a school bus.