Masks optional in Suffolk public schools beginning March 28

Published 6:16 pm Friday, March 25, 2022

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With COVID-19 levels having dropped off dramatically over the past month, the Suffolk School Board has voted to expand its mask optional policy to include students riding division transportation, staff and visitors.

In a pair of 5-2 votes at its Thursday meeting, the board adopted the new policy and made March 28 the date it goes into effect. Board member Tyron Riddick and chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck voted no.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III explained the new policy in a letter posted to the division’s website and sent out across the school division.

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“While we are giving the option to wear masks, Suffolk Public Schools may consider reasonable accommodations for anyone with underlying health conditions and those who do not feel comfortable removing their face covering,” Gordon said. “We will continue to keep plastic dividers on desks and the option for staff to wear plastic face shields. Staff members can discuss additional options with their principal or department lead.

“We thank you for your patience and understanding as we have navigated through the fluidity of the pandemic for two years. You have held on steadfast to knowing that Suffolk Public Schools will always take extreme care and concern in implementing measures to keep our division safe. Thank you for your continued support.”

His letter also noted rising numbers of vaccinated people along with lower COVID-19 transmission levels and reduced health risks in noting that the state and the Department of Labor and Industry support the rights of people to choose whether or not to wear masks in non-federally mandated locations.

The impetus for the change in policy came from board member Karen Jenkins, who asked at the board’s March 10 meeting to have a discussion about masking put on the agenda for the March 24 meeting, which had been set aside for the board to approve its budget for the next fiscal year. The school division had announced Feb. 16 a mask-optional policy for students while on school property.

The case rate per 100,000 people for the city was 20.63 for the week ending March 19, putting it in the moderate transmission category, while the 7-day positivity rate stood at 1.53%, down from about 47% in early February.

Chief of Administrative Services Rodney Brown said the division had just six cases in the past week ending March 20—two staff members and four students—and averaged just 28 students in quarantine.

Jenkins made the initial motion to make mask-wearing optional for everyone. After some discussion, the motion was revised to ensure that the mask-optional policy included staff, visitors, volunteers and those riding buses.

Brooks-Buck asked whether Wednesday’s federal court ruling that allowed a few schools to mandate mask wearing if needed to protect 12 immunocompromised children whose families had filed a lawsuit over mask-optional policies would have any impact in Suffolk.

Board attorney Wendell Waller said the court ruling could have an indirect impact for the school division “is that if a student requests a reasonable accommodation because the student has a health condition that substantially impacts a day-to-day activity … and the reasonable accommodation is a mask-requirement, that is, that they’re going to require other students near them or administrators, teachers or what have you, to wear a mask because they have a medical condition that could cause them to have serious illness from COVID, the school division can consider masking as a reasonable accommodation. However, the school division does not have to allow for masking … if there are other reasonable accommodations that the student could be given.”

Riddick, after his vote, said he opposed changing the policy at this time because “to my knowledge, not all buses are equipped with air conditioning that would help” and added he was also concerned about special education students.

He said his aim was to protect all people in Suffolk, including those students as well as those riding school buses and staff with underlying health conditions.

Board member Sherri Story, who supports the mask-optional policy, said “it is not a mandate to not wear a mask, it is only the option to not wear one. And so I hope that this is looked at as if anyone to get sick, but it is an option, and if you want to continue to wear your mask and that’s how you feel safe and comfortable, then please do so.”