HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - Gov. Ralph Northam is stepping in to end the highly contentious mask debate in schools.
Northam issued an executive order Thursday making masks mandatory for everyone 2 years old and older while indoors at public and private K-12 schools, with some exceptions.
Lauren Zapp’s rising first grader and preschooler have no problem wearing masks, but their Portsmouth private school decided to allow parents to choose whether or not to mask up
“I personally am having them wear their masks. Last year they also wore their masks, and I had zero illnesses - barely even a cold - so I think just, in my head, it worked,” said Zapp.
Just a week ago, Northam was asked about mandating masks in schools during a press conference. He said expected school districts to follow CDC guidelines, which recommend masking for students as required by law, but school districts like Chesapeake Public Schools and the York County School Division decided masks would be optional.
York County school officials have since announced they will comply with the governor’s new mandate.
“To me, it’s body autonomy,” said Kate Freeman. “I think that they should have a right to choose whether or not they want to wear them, and I think it’s the parents’ choice really whether or not to enforce that above all else.”
Masks don’t need to be worn if a person is eating, drinking or sleeping; exercising; playing a musical instrument; has trouble breathing or can’t remove the mask without assistance; has a disability; or is participating in a religious ritual.
Any person who declines to wear a mask because of a medical condition or any person with a sincerely held religious objection to wearing masks in school may request a reasonable accommodation.
Northam says the decision was made to control the spread of coronavirus. The CDC reports that COVID-19 transmission remains high in all Hampton Roads communities as the highly contagious the Delta variant takes over.
Chesapeake Public Schools reversed course hours after universal masking in all classrooms became mandatory.
An email went out to families Thursday evening stating that the governor’s order overturns the school board’s decision in June to keep masks as a choice.
Chesapeake ninth grade English teacher Amanda Lambert has a rising sixth grader who’s too young to get the shot. She’s been pushing for universal mask wearing indoors even more so as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to drive up case numbers.
“It was good to cry happy tears for the first time on time,” Lambert said. “I know a lot of parents, including the parents of my students have been worried. I've been worried. My son's obviously too young to be vaccinated. He's 11, so it was a big sigh of relief.”
The new mask regulations, however, are not sitting well with some.
“I think it's incredibly disheartening,” said Jenny Chambers, a Chesapeake parent. “You're taking away our rights that we have as parents to be able to voice our concerns and our opinions regarding this matter.”
Chambers has a 5-year-old daughter and is also part of the group Chesapeake Parents for Freedom. She said families should be able to make their own decisions about their children.
“When it comes to my daughter, I know her best,” said Chambers. “A school system doesn’t know her. The governor does not know her. The health commissioner does not know my daughter. I know her, and I would never do anything intentionally to put her in harm’s way.”
Lambert argues masks will keep families safe.
“We’ve got to do the right thing for everybody,” she said. “You look at the statistics from the southern states, and it's just horrible down there. I think if there's a means to prevent that happening here, we should take it.”
Chambers isn’t convinced, saying some parents are feeling whiplash from the constant changes.
“The CDC has flopped back and forth saying yes to masks, no to masks, two masks, so they don't even have anything concrete for us to stand on,” she said. “I don’t think there’s enough basis, scientifically."
One thing both parents agree on – their children’s health comes first.
The mask mandate in Chesapeake schools is effective immediately. Administrators said it’ll remain in place until CDC guidelines change or the state order is revoked.