Chesapeake School Board reverses decision, keeps masks mandatory for students until further notice

Chesapeake

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — Chesapeake School Board members have reversed a previous decision to make masks optional for students in schools.

In a 5-1 vote Friday, the board voted to amend the motion made earlier in the month which made masks, testing and vaccines optional for students starting Jan. 3. Now, masks will be mandatory to align with the state health commissioner’s public health order.

The special meeting called on New Year’s Eve to review recent COVID-19 data quickly became heated, with Vice-Chair Colleen Leary ordering school district administration to temporarily clear the room following outbursts from parents yelling “shame” and calling board members “child abusers.”

Before board members adjourned, they promised to revisit the masking policy in the coming months.

The energy of the meeting was an apropos ending to 2021, a year in which public education issues dominated political headlines.

Out of the seven cities, the Chesapeake School Board has flirted with defying state mandates several times.

Ahead of the vote, school officials reviewed recent COVID-19 data. Superintendent Dr. Jared Cotton phoned into the board meeting from vacation. He said case numbers in schools have skyrocketed (18.4% positivity) and that he expects positive cases to be higher this January than last.

He said at individual schools may be shifting to work from home at a moment’s notice because of rising COVID-19 cases and revealed that principals were notified about being ready to shift to virtual and have devices ready. He said the district cannot go all-virtual as state law now requires in-person learning to be offered.

Chesapeake schools voted Dec. 13 to make masks optional for students in the new year starting Jan. 3. They also removed the COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements starting in the new year as well.

Masks would have been optional for Chesapeake students, except while on school buses due to the federal mandate for public transportation. Chesapeake athletes have had to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, but no longer would be under the new rule.

The change made during the special meeting Friday doesn’t impact vaccines or testing — those will still remain optional starting Jan. 3.

“I am totally for parental authority. I do not like masks any more than anybody else does. But at this point with the surge in the omicron and how it’s affecting our children, we were very concerned they were going to be coming back from visiting families and having holiday celebrations that might cause them to go home,” Leary said following the meeting.

Leary assured the decision had nothing to do with possible misdemeanor charges for school board members.

Board member Angie Swygert was the lone “no” vote on continuing the mask mandate, saying “I believe we have surpassed the point where the benefits of masking our children outweigh the downfalls.”

Both board members Christie New Craig — who made the original motion to make masks optional — and Harry Murphy were out of town.

On Thursday however, New Craig said she does “not support this” and suggested that parents should “homeschool, or charter schools because public schools are just government-controlled schools.”

The Chesapeake Education Association released a statement Friday night applauding the board’s decision to keep masks mandatory.

The school board also voted to revisit the masking guidelines in the future based on the COVID-19 case data. It is believed Gov-elect Glenn Youngkin, (R-Virginia) will revoke the current mask mandate when he gets into office.

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