VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – During a Virginia Beach School Board work session Tuesday, administration leaders gave a presentation with the latest COVID-19 data.
According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), community transmission in the city is high, with a 36.1 percent positivity rate over the last seven days.
Board members plan on discussed an alternative schedule model to overcome teacher shortages and save on costs associated with staffing challenges.
Administrators say there is a total of 116 staffing vacancies.
“Do you not think this is going to cause more people to leave?” said board member Trenace Riggs. “I mean, let's face it. You're putting more on teachers now by doing this."
School leaders responded saying, “finding candidates is becoming increasingly difficult.”
Ultimately, the school board voted unanimously to change high school schedules to a hybrid model, which remains in-person and allows students the option of keeping their study blocks.
Masks weren’t even on the agenda Tuesday, but the topic was front and center for parents and students.
“I think we should wear a mask to keep everyone safe, including students, staff and the family members who could actually be at risk,” said Kellam High School sophomore Allie Anthony.
Rowynn Riley, a ninth-grade student, also attends Kellam High School.
“Today was my first day back without being forced to wear a mask since the seventh grade, and it was definitely a better experience for me as well as my friends,” said Riley. “I just want to be able to breathe freely and see friends’ faces at school.”
Some of the youngest students stood tall, speaking out on the polarizing issue.
“Hopefully my nose acne will go away now that I can be mask-free,” said fourth-grade North Landing Elementary student Natalie Rash. “Today was the best day in the last two years of going to school. Thank you.”
Jules Owen, 8, said she was smiling ear to ear after she got to go to elementary school for the first time without a mask Tuesday.
The second grader addressed her school board hours later about how she felt.
“I can finally see their smile; I can finally breathe without wearing a face mask,” Owen said. “After two years, I was happy.”
During a special school board meeting last Thursday, members voted to allow parents to opt their child out of the mask requirement while also following guidance from the CDC and Virginia Beach Department of Health.
The move comes after Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-Virginia) executive order allowing parents to choose.
“There’s been no change in the science showing masking to be some of the most effective COVID mitigation strategy in the classroom, so educators can only assume this decision was made for political rather than safety reasons,” said VBEA President Kathleen Slinde.
Though data from VDH shows community transmission in the city is high, the school district’s Chief of Staff Dr. Donald Robertson said COVID cases throughout the entire school system are low.
He said out of the 64,000 students, more than 800 tested positive last week.
Dr. Robertson recommends seeing if opting out of masks works before revisiting the policy, but some parents and teachers are not willing to take any chances.
“I don’t feel safe that my working conditions and that my daughter’s learning conditions will be safe for the foreseeable future,” said one VBCPS teacher and parent who called into the meeting.
The administration is in the process of buying KN95 masks for students and staff. They said masks could arrive within the next two weeks.