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Fauquier schools to open Wednesday with masks optional for all

School board members, citizens comment on mask policy Monday night

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H.M. Pearson Principal Mark T. Marchinetti greets students with a COVID-safe elbow bump on Jan. 12.

This article has been updated throughout to reflect comments expressed at the Aug. 9 Fauquier County School Board meeting.

Fauquier County Public Schools will not require masks for students, staff members or visitors in any circumstances, according to a policy document presented at Monday evening’s school board meeting. More than a dozen citizens spoke during citizens’ time; most agreed with the school board’s decision.

The fall semester begins Wednesday, with five days of in-person instruction per week offered for all students.

The document “strongly recommends” that students under 12 years old wear masks in school buildings and buses and “recommends” that all others wear masks in buildings and buses.

Before citizens’ time, school board member Duke Bland (Marshall District) and Donna Grove (Cedar Run District) read lengthy statements explaining their positions on mask wearing in schools.

Bland was the lone voice of dissension, using his time to emphasize that Fauquier County has a “high” rate of community transmission according to metrics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We very rapidly moved from moderate to substantial to high,” he said.

Bland also read statistics about how children may be experiencing more severe illness on average as a result of the Delta variant of the virus. “As of a week ago, 192 children with COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals each and every day,” said Bland about COVID in the U.S. He added, “46% had no preexisting conditions and 416 ages 0 to 18 have died.”

Bland was one of the few people Monday night who mentioned the Delta variant of the coronavirus. “The Delta variant, more contagious than chicken pox, in just one week had an 84% increase in new COVID-19 cases among children…. New Delta variant accounts for 93% of cases…” Some in the audience of about 60 residents made their feelings known by shouting their disbelief from the seats of the Taylor Middle School auditorium.

When Grove spoke, she focused her remarks specifically on the science of mask wearing. “…many of you have reminded us that our duty is to protect the health and safety of our students and staff. I agree completely. However, I think some of you may disagree with me on what ‘safety’ means. I don’t believe it means just safe from the COVID-19 virus. I believe it encompasses a much broader definition. It is well documented that there are downsides to mask wearing – especially for young children. Young children need to see facial expressions; they need to see the teacher forming words; they need to see smiles.”

This last sentence elicited the first of several waves of applause, shouts of approval and loud whistles from the audience.

Grove went on to quote studies that concluded that mask-wearing offers little to no protection against viruses like the coronavirus. Her voice was unwavering as she listed scientific studies she learned about in the New England Journal of Medicine, The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Washington Post and other publications. She admitted that there may be studies that conclude the opposite. “Who is to say that this one is right and this one is wrong?” she asked.

She continued, “Some of you have said to me, ‘How will you feel when a child dies from this virus?’ I would feel horrible – just like I would feel if a child dies from suicide, which is a documented issue for some children who must wear masks.

“… I am very comfortable letting parents decide what works for their children,” she finished, to loud applause.

Superintendent of Schools David Jeck pointed out that the policy regarding masks had been tweaked in the hours before the meeting. A slide had been added to the PowerPoint, stipulating that “Masks may be mandated for students, staff and visitors … if the rate of new positive cases of coronavirus is at or above 1% of the total student or staff population in a calendar (seven-day) week at a particular school, department, or across the school division.” (The Virginia Department of Health says that 1% percent and above is considered a high rate of new infections.)

Masks may also be mandated if the number of absentees due to illness or quarantines is at or above 10% of the total population of students or staff at a particular school or department, the slide said. (10% is more than double the standard absentee rate of 5% or less.)

Jeck also explained that parents may need to “opt out” of mask wearing for their children, so that teachers have a record of parents’ preferences. He said more information would be forthcoming on that. “It will be a one-click process,” he said, and said he thought it would be put in place within the next few weeks.

Citizens’ time

Fourteen residents spoke during citizens time after the school board members’ discussion about keeping mask wearing optional in schools.

Holly Burriss thanked the school board for their decision, but still seemed to object to contact tracing after a positive diagnosis. “What is the end game here? How long can parents expect that their children will have to quarantine because of a contact?” She said that “We are going to have to learn to live with the virus... Unlike polio, this will never be eradicated.”

Michael Manfro talked about the risks of mental health issues in children who are isolated and questioned the validity of coronavirus testing. He referred to the Delta variant with air quotes.

U.S. Army veteran Jonathan Stewart said he learned about masks in the military. “Masks used correctly are great. Cloth masks are doing nothing for you.”

To loud applause, Veronica Farr said, “We were not created to wear masks. We don’t live in fear. We live in faith. We are not afraid.”

Brother and sister Maia and Colin MacMahon spoke in favor of mask wearing. Maia, a junior at Liberty High School, told the audience that she is "high risk." “I’m begging you to think about those with asthma or an autoimmune disease… it’s not too late to make the right decision.”

Colin, an eighth grader, said that his family has been very careful to follow the rules to avoid spreading COVID. “I will be wearing a mask. But that person sitting next to you, you have no idea how careful they have been.” The siblings were the only mask-supporting speakers whom audience members did not try to drown out with shouting.

Frank Escaloua said that if people wanted to know about the efficacy of masks, they need only talk to healthcare workers who depended on masks to keep them safe while they cared for patients. He was bombarded with dissenting voices from the audience until Grove asked for quiet.

The school division’s decision not to require masks comes despite new guidance from the CDC, which recommends that everyone in school buildings and buses wear masks to mitigate the spread of the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.

In guidance updated last week, the CDC now recommends “universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” among other mitigation measures.

Chad Wellins was the final speaker Monday night. As someone “with legal training and as a taxpayer,” he cautioned the school board about veering from CDC guidance. “There is a potential for civil liability,” Wellins said.

Virginia-wide

At a press conference last week, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) implied that school divisions may be legally required to implement a universal mask mandate, citing a state law passed earlier this year that directs school divisions to implement “any currently applicable mitigation strategies” recommended by the CDC “to the maximum extent practicable.” (The same law, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, also requires all school divisions to offer five days of in-person instruction per week to all students.)

But in response to reporters’ questions, Northam refused to say last week how – or if – the state government would enforce Northam’s interpretation of the law if school divisions opted not to require masks, a path many rural localities have already taken. No state agency has so far issued a rule explicitly requiring school divisions to adopt a policy requiring masks.

The governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry from the Fauquier Times sent this weekend.

The Fauquier school division has already disregarded a state directive regarding masks this summer – without any apparent penalty.

On June 30, amid Fauquier’s Summer Academy summer-school program, the Fauquier school division announced it was dropping its mask requirement.

The next day, July 1, the state health commissioner announced a public health order requiring all “all individuals aged 5 and older to wear masks when indoors at public and private K-12 schools” through July 25. (The order contained many exceptions to the rule.)

The school division ignored the order.

“We are not asking the school division to revise the guidance they released earlier this week,” said School Board Member Stephanie Litter-Reber (Lee District) at the time, calling the public health order “completely unenforceable.”

At least one local academic institution will require masks when classes resume.

Lord Fairfax Community College, a public institution based in Middletown with campuses in Warrenton, Vint Hill and Luray, now requires all students and staff members to wear masks in its buildings. The policy began Monday in accordance with a blanket requirement issued by the Virginia Community College System. “People who are alone in their office/workspace can take them off,” said a college spokesperson.

Some private primary and secondary schools have yet to decide.

St. James’ Episcopal School in Warrenton had not yet determined its mask policy as of Monday; classes begin Aug. 18.

Wakefield School in The Plains begins classes Aug. 25 and has not implemented a mask policy. “Wakefield is currently monitoring VDH's recommendations for the coming school year.  Our focus will be to open the school in a safe and healthy environment like we did last year,” a statement from the school said Monday.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Warrenton will not require masks for students or staff members when the fall semester begins, a school representative said Monday.

Representatives of Highland School, in Warrenton, and Covenant Christian Academy, in Vint Hill, did not respond to inquiries about their mask policies.

Reach Robin Earl at rearl@fauquier.com

Reach Coy Ferrell at cferrell@fauquier.com

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