Mask requirement still stands for SPS

Published 4:56 pm Friday, January 21, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Suffolk Public Schools will still require students and staff to wear masks indoors while on school property or while using the division’s transportation, according to a letter issued Friday.

The letter is a response to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order to make masking optional beginning Jan. 24.

“On Monday, January 24, 2022, Suffolk Public Schools will continue to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations regarding universal masking for grades K-12,” the letter states. “All students, staff and visitors must wear a mask while on school property OR while using SPS provided transportation, in accordance with federal law, regardless of vaccination status.”

Email newsletter signup

Youngkin announced on Friday updated guidelines developed by the state departments of health and education regarding the executive order. They emphasize alternative measures to mitigate COVID-19 in schools, including vaccination, distancing and outbreak awareness, a “decision-tree for parents to help them determine when to quarantine their children and then subsequently allow them to return to school, strongly encouraging test-to-stay and other efforts to keep children in class and returning them to school and provides schools with “practicable flexibility” on contact tracing, social distancing and other mitigation measures.

“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents,” Youngkin said in a statement. “Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents. … In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal and trust the legal process.”
Suffolk Public Schools says it will strictly enforce mask-wearing and would provide masks for students and staff who are on school property or for any student getting onto a school bus without one.

The letter also cites the School Board regulations manual regarding the division’s masking requirement for staff and students noting that it “will adhere to Centers for Disease Control recommendations regarding universal indoor masking” by staff, teachers, visitors and all students. It cites Chapter 436 of the Acts of Assembly, Senate Bill 1303 subsection 2 and school board policies section 7-2.3 and section 9-11.8

“Students who refuse to wear a mask will conference with their school administration,” according to the letter, “who will then develop a plan of action for instruction, as well as the health and safety of all students and staff.”

SB 1303, which passed the General Assembly and was signed into law by then-Gov. Ralph Northam, requires school boards to offer in-person instruction for public school students while following CDC mitigation strategies to reduce COVID-19 transmission. The bill expires Aug. 1, 2022.

The CDC currently recommends universal indoor masking by all teachers, visitors and students ages 2 and up, regardless of vaccination status.

The Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement Jan. 17 saying it “strongly recommends that school-aged children, regardless of vaccination status, wear a well-fitting face mask while attending school.”

It says wearing masks is a key part in protecting children against the omicron variant of COVID-19 and any future variants, as well as protecting them against other respiratory infections
From Jan. 10 to Jan. 14, the average number of students in quarantine was 1,840, according to the division’s COVID-19 dashboard. For the week of Jan. 10 to Jan. 16, the division reported 209 COVID-19 cases, including 23 at Nansemond River High School and 19 at Lakeland High School. The previous week, there were 278 cases. The division’s case disclaimer notes that one case does not equal one person because it can include one person who was at multiple locations.

In the past few days, school boards in Poquoson, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach have voted to make masking optional for students, in line with Youngkin’s order. School boards in Isle of Wight County, Norfolk and Portsmouth voted, however, to continue requiring that masks be worn in schools.
In Isle of Wight, its school board voted 4-1 to continue the mask mandate following a 40-minute closed session at a Jan. 20 special meeting to discuss “operational and legal ramifications” with the board’s attorney.

A group of Chesapeake parents represented by attorney Kevin Martingayle has filed a lawsuit against Youngkin saying his executive order to make masking optional violates state law. The lawsuit also names the state’s Acting Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Barlow, the Chesapeake School Board and Chesapeake City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jared Cotton.
New attorney general Jason Miyares has filed a motion with the Virginia Supreme Court to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Regardless of masking status in schools, students are still required, per federal law, to wear a mask on school buses.

In a Jan. 17 letter from SPS to families, it stated that masks are a key strategy in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and allowing the division to continue offering in-person instruction.

“The Suffolk Public Schools Administration and School Board respect the decisions that parents make for their students,” the Jan. 17 letter states, “however, leadership must make decisions for the safety of 14,000 students and 2,300 employees. We know that this change in the expectation from the state level has caused high levels of anxiety about attending school for your education, as well as for work. We are asking for your patience as we work through this at the local and state level.”

Four schools shifted to virtual learning from Jan. 17 to Jan. 21 — King’s Fork Middle School, and Kilby Shores, Mack Benn Jr. and Southwestern elementary schools — due to a high number of COVID-19 cases at those schools forcing many staff and students to be in quarantine.

More information
See the interim guidance for COVID-19 prevention in the state’s PreK-12 schools by the Virginia departments of health and education.