Add To Favorites
Teachers, parents plead with W-JCC School Board to maintain mask requirements despite executive order
Virginia Gazette - 1/20/2022
Jan. 20—Williamsburg-James City County school teachers, parents and residents pleaded with the School Board to continue its masking requirements at its Tuesday night meeting citing safety concerns and teacher shortages.
The requests came as a result of newly inaugurated Gov. Glenn Youngkin's executive order which mandates divisions lift their universal masking requirements and allow parents to decide whether their child will wear a mask while on school grounds.
There were roughly 50 residents in attendance in the James Blair Middle School gymnasium and another 250 who watched online.
With several things to consider ahead of making a decision, the board heard from three professionals in the medical field, Superintendent Olwen Herron, Chief Operating Officer Daniel Keever and 13 residents who spoke to defy the order.
The board also heard from eight residents, many of whom did not follow masking guidelines at the meeting, to argue it should adhere to the new policy.
Prior to its public comment period, the board heard from members of its health advisory team: William & Mary epidemiologist Carrie Dolan, Olde Town Medical nurse practitioner Kendra Robertson and pediatrician Kris Powell.
According to Dolan, case rates continue to grow and are at historic highs as the state continues to brace during its fifth wave of the pandemic.
Models project a continued steep rise in cases with a peak sometime in the upcoming week and then there is an anticipated drop, Dolan said.
According to Robertson, the current recommendation is to continue to adhere to multiple mitigation strategies to limit the spread of the virus. This includes maintaining physical distance, wearing masks, proper hygiene, proper ventilation, quarantining and, the most effective, vaccination.
While there are some that are not as effective on their own, Robertson said a combination of mitigation strategies is the most effective.
While the division is facing a drastic increase in cases, reflective of the region, according to contact tracing, only about 2% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases are a result of being at school. According to Dolan, the school can soon begin adopting an off-ramp plan which will see mitigation plans lessened as they slowly adjust to normalcy.
But Robertson said it should only do so if community transmission rates are low and the burden to the school is low, as in the school has enough staff to maintain absences and quarantines.
"If the school burden is low and community transmission is low then it might be a good time to take the masks off and challenge it, but this is called the dynamic masking strategy," Robertson said. "It's dynamic and it changes. You can challenge it and then reconsider in the next few weeks."
According to Keever, the division is currently struggling with staffing because of the rising uptick in cases. In a typical year, out of all of its substitute teacher requests, the division is able to fill 95% of them. This year, with substitute teachers in high demand, the division can only meet about 46% of those requests.
The division has relied on central office staff to fill in substitute teaching positions. Since Nov. 1, the central office staff has filled 140 school substitute requests with 46 of those requests coming in the last two weeks.
Last week, the entire bus maintenance crew was out because of confirmed cases and quarantining. Keever said 10 bus drivers were out and several bus drivers are having to make three and four runs a day. Members of the transportation office with CDL licenses, who typically take phone calls, are now making bus runs.
"What does that do in terms of our ability to provide on-time service? Well, we can't, to be blatantly honest, we can't provide on-time service," Keever said. "It has been an all-hands-on-deck approach to try to maintain daily in-person learning. We are at a very tenuous point."
For teacher Sara Webb, this year has been a difficult one and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases as a result of the omicron variant has only placed additional strain on faculty. With limited staff as a result of quarantines, Webb said it is becoming increasingly more difficult to keep the schools afloat as substitute teacher pools dwindle and the central office staff is pulled to different classrooms to make things work.
According to Webb, a decision to stop mask mandates in schools would be detrimental as it would only lead to more quarantines and more positive cases.
"I have never seen my fellow educators this stressed and unhappy. I hear more and more teachers threatening to leave. I speak for myself and others when I say we are absolutely exhausted and we cannot take anything else on our plate," Webb said. "With the mask mandate being removed, potentially, on Jan. 24, I know myself and others will feel even more unsafe than we already do."
Stonehouse Elementary teacher Kasey Bailey echoed Webb. Addressing the board, Bailey, a veteran teacher, said the current situation in the division has left numerous teachers feeling undervalued and overworked.
"In 20 years, I have never felt less valued in society," Baliey said. "Now is not the time to send the message to teachers that health and well-being of them and their families is not a top priority."
James River Elementary teacher Lindsey Taylor urged the School Board to spend a day in one of the schools in the division and witness the current state of the division.
In the past few weeks, Taylor said she spends the first part of her day deciding where she will be placed for the day and if she will be filling in for other teachers to make in-person learning possible.
"If what we have just seen and what we have been through in the past two weeks is not the peak, then I am not sure we will be able to get through that in our schools," Taylor said. "I spend the first 20 minutes of my day every day deciding who's covering what, whether l am teaching P.E., library or computer class, or all three."
According to pediatrician Powell, the best measure to limit the spread and move the division closer to lessening mitigation practices, including masking, is to promote vaccinations and get the division's vaccination rates higher.
As of Wednesday morning, 91% of the division's faculty and staff are fully vaccinated, 21.2% of children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated and 43.9% of children ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated.
According to Dolan, the vaccination rates are not high enough for the division to do away with one of its mitigation strategies at this time.
"Our vaccination rates for K-12 are low. They are very low and because they are so low, it gives you less options and if you got the vaccination rates up and they were higher, you have more choices," Dolan said. "My personal opinion, eliminating vaccines, eliminating boosters, eliminating masks is a fast track to not being able to stay in school."
Whispers from the audience rose from those in favor of eliminating masking as the health advisory team presented their findings in the community and the current state of mitigation practices in schools.
Among the speakers who spoke in favor of eliminating masks was Phyllis Eastman, who said she does not have children in the Williamsburg-James City County schools.
Eastman argued that masks and vaccines do not work especially with the omicron variant and that the schools have denied children their right to view the faces of their teachers and other children.
"They have been denied one of the greatest learning tools that God gave us: the face," Eastman said. "Very recently, the CDC admitted that masks have delayed children's articulation. Our mistake has been a total dependency on the federal bureaucracy known as the CDC."
The Virginia Department of Health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Pediatrics Association agree that wearing masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and vaccinations are the most effective measure against hospitalization and death.
There is no current study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that masks affect children's ability to learn including their ability to communicate.
Several speakers denied the significance of the COVID-19 virus citing that the common flu is equally as destructive.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, during the 2020-21 flu season, it reported no pediatric deaths, ages 0 to 17, as a result of flu. As of Wednesday morning, the department has reported 17 COVID-19-related pediatric deaths in the state.
The CDC reported in 2019, its most recent data set, that 1,100 Virginians died of the flu. As of Wednesday morning, 15,835 Virginians have died as a result of COVID-19.
Following the presentations, Superintendent Olwen Herron said she recommends the board vote to maintain its masking requirements despite the executive order.
Despite Herron's recommendation, Chairman Greg Dowell said the board will need time to consider its option before the executive order goes into effect Monday.
The board will hold a special-called meeting Thursday at James Blair Middle School gymnasium, 101 Longhill Road, in which it will make its decision. The closed session will begin at 12:15 p.m. and the public portion of the meeting will begin at 12:30. There will be no public comment period and the public is encouraged to watch the livestream of the meeting at wjccschools.org. The meeting was originally scheduled for Friday, but was moved due to predicted inclement weather.
For more information, visit wjccschools.org.
Em Holter, firstname.lastname@example.org, 757-256-6657, @EmHolterNews.
(c)2022 The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Va.)
Visit The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Va.) at www.vagazette.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.