Prince William County schools’ policy requiring students and staff to wear face masks with limited exceptions will remain in place despite the executive order Virginia’s new governor issued Saturday, Superintendent LaTanya McDade reiterated in a new statement Monday.
In a letter to school division staff and families emailed at noon Monday, Jan. 17, McDade said schools' "layered mitigation strategies" would remain in effect when schools reopen Tuesday.
It was the first official communication from McDade since Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed his Executive Order Two a few hours after he was inaugurated into office at noon on Saturday, Jan. 15. The order promised “to empower Virginia parents in their children’s education and upbringing by allowing parents to make decisions on whether their child wears a mask in school.”
The school division initially announced before Youngkin's inauguration that the school division's existing mask mandate would remain in place.
“We are aware that the incoming governor may announce executive orders that modify guidance on masks and vaccines,” said a school division statement issued Saturday morning. “Currently, PWCS COVID-19 mitigations remain unchanged, including mask requirements. We will continue to evaluate local, state and national guidance, and communicate any updates as they are determined.”
McDade's Jan. 17 letter notes that the Virginia Department of Education is expected to issue revised guidance on masks in the coming days. She said the school division would evaluate Youngkin's order "along with local, state and national legal requirements."
"As always, any changes to our mitigation strategies will be made thoughtfully and with the health and safety of students and staff as our priority," she added. "Any decision to remove a mitigation layer must take into consideration our ability to continue in-person instruction."
Prince William County schools' mask policy requires all students, staff and visitors to wear face masks inside all public schools both during the school day and during afterschool activities. Students and staff are permitted to take off their masks when they are eating and drinking in school cafeterias. The rule also allows vaccinated student athletes to remove their masks while practicing and competing and only “recommends” masks for students participating in indoor physical education classes. Masks are also not required for outdoor recess and P.E. classes.
Executive order comes amid COVID-19 surge, record student absences
Youngkin’s move to make masks optional in public schools comes as all 35 Virginia health districts are seeing a “surge” in COVID-19 cases for the second-straight week, the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute reported Friday.
Prince William County set a record-high community transmission rate – more than 1,500 cases per 100,000 residents – as of Monday, Jan. 10, and Prince William County schools recorded on Friday, Jan. 14 its highest-ever number of student absences from school due to COVID-19.
Nearly 3,700 students were absent on Friday, Jan. 15 – more than 4% of the school division’s current enrollment of 89,468 students, according to the school division’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Students absences due to COVID-19 more than doubled over the course of the past week, rising from 1,558 on Monday, Jan. 10, to 3,693 on Friday, Jan. 14, according to school division data.
According to news reports, Youngkin’s Executive Order Two could conflict with the new Virginia law passed only last summer. The law, commonly referred to as Senate Bill 1303, requires schools to offer in-person classes to all students five days a week with limited exceptions and while adhering “to the maximum extent practicable” to mitigation guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which currently recommends masking in public schools.
But Republican and Democratic state lawmakers have been divided for months about whether the law requires Virginia schools to mandate masks.
Executive order goes into effect Jan. 24
Youngkin’s Executive Order Two, which goes into effect on Monday, Jan. 24, terminates the public health order and state superintendent’s guidance undergirding the current mask order for public schools. It also says parents of any child enrolled in an elementary or secondary school or school-based early childcare program “may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.”
The order further says a child whose parent has decided he or she should not wear a mask at school will not be required to do so by “any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education, or any other state authority.”
The order argues school masks mandates have been “ineffective and impractical” and that children often wear their masks incorrectly or wear cloth masks “that often are not clean, resulting in the collection of impurities, including bacteria and parasites.”
The order also says masks inhibit the ability of children to communicate, delay language development and impede emotional and social skills and increase feelings of isolation, “exacerbating mental health issues.”
The order also says school districts should combat the spread of the virus by improving indoor air quality by upgrading or replacing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems – projects that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take months to complete.
Teacher: Improperly worn masks schools’ ‘biggest battle’
Meanwhile, both Prince William County teachers and students interviewed this week said the mask mandate makes them feel safer in school. But they also said students’ unwillingness or inability to wear masks correctly – over noses and mouths – is an ongoing source of frustration and anxiety, especially as COVID-19 cases rise.
Although the school division has mandated face masks since schools reopened in 2020, the rule is not consistently enforced. Community members have attended school board meetings without masks. During indoor athletic contests, school bleachers are frequently filled with visitors either wearing masks incorrectly or not wearing them at all.
Shannon Geraghty, a longtime AP Government teacher at Forest Park High School, said she dons a KN95 mask in her classroom, which the CDC says offers more protection than cloth or surgical masks, and has surrounded her desk with plexiglass – all in an effort to avoid catching the virus.
Still, when asked if she felt safe at school this past week, Geraghty called improper mask-wearing the school’s “biggest battle.”
“We stand in the hallway between each class and say, ‘MASK UP!’” Geraghty said. “Oftentimes [students] do not listen and just walk on by. There are too many students with masks down to enforce it. Sometimes when we try to enforce, they run, yell rude things at us, etcetera.”
Still, Geraghty added: “I would be very disappointed if the mask mandate in schools was rescinded. It’s at least something.”
Ovetta Scott, who has taught at Fred Lynn Middle School for 15 years, says she wears a face mask and a face shield and is careful to wipe down doorknobs and desks in her classroom at least twice a day. But she too said she frequently reminds students to pull up their masks and fears she might eventually get sick despite those precautions.
“I will just say, ‘Please pull your masks up!” she said in an interview last week. “It’s all we can do.”
“Really, it’s inevitable. We can do the N95 [masks], but some time, our guard’s going to be down and [the virus] is going to land on our foreheads,” she said.
The school division’s mask policy says students who come to school without a mask will be offered one and that “egregious and reoccurring instances” of not following the mask policy can result in disciplinary action in accordance with the school division’s Code of Behavior.
But little is said to students who don’t wear their masks correctly – over both their noses and mouths – both teachers and students said.
Charlotte Flynn, a Woodbridge Senior High School senior who serves as a student representative on the Prince William County School Board, said both students and teachers find it difficult to correct students who wear masks incorrectly.
Teachers and administrators, she said, “should have the freedom to tell people to pull their masks up.”
Flynn said she mostly felt safe in school this week except when she found herself in crowded hallways and or in places where students were not wearing masks, such as in the cafeteria and bathrooms. “And then there’s just the constant fidgeting with masks,” she said.
Daania Sharifi, a Gainesville High School junior who also serves as a student representative on the school board, said the recent surge of COVID-19 cases seemed to make both students and teachers more vigilant about precautions, including masks. She said many students mentioned having COVID-19 over the holidays, or knowing someone who did, which heightened awareness.
Sharifi said she feels mostly safe in school and is glad to be attending school in person, even if she worries about the current surge and circumstances when students don’t wear masks, such as during indoor athletic events.
“That’s a bit concerning,” she said. “I’m just a little worried with the new variant and how this surge is going to go.”
After Youngkin issued his executive order Saturday, Sharifi said she believes "it’s very important that students still wear their masks and that Prince William County continues to place these necessary restrictions in order to prevent the spread of the new variant."
"It is my highest concern that PWCS will continue to require masks for students and staff," she added.
Flynn said more students seemed to be absent from school by the end of the week and that those who remained were taking stronger precautions, including with their masks.
“I will say that some people are doubling up with masks,” she said.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com