Culpeper schools make face masks optional, per Youngkin’s policy – Culpeper Star-Exponent

Going along with an executive order by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Culpeper County’s public schools have made face masks optional—no longer required—for their students, staff and visitors, the division announced Tuesday afternoon. They will still require masks on school buses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The change reverses Culpeper schools’ policy since mid-August, when they required all students, staff and visitors to wear masks while indoors on school property.

“Culpeper County Public Schools (CCPS) is required by law to follow all federal and state health orders,” Culpeper schools announced then. “This Order supersedes School Board Policy and will remain in effect until the CDC guidelines for K-12 schools change, or the Order is amended or rescinded.” The school division based that decision on an Aug. 12 order from Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner under Gov. Ralph Northam. This month, Youngkin did not keep Oliver, who had wanted to serve the new administration, in his post.

This week’s policy reflects changes in guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control, according to Culpeper schools’ updated COVID-19 Mitigation Plan, found on the division’s website.

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Via Twitter and Facebook posts on Tuesday, Culpeper County Public Schools said they implemented the policy change the same day. It applies when people are outdoors or inside school buildings and facilities.

The School Board discussed the change when it met Jan. 10, hearing recommendations from Superintendent Tony Brads and Dr. Russell Houck, the division’s executive director of student services.

Brads told the board that once the state changed its masking order, the division would adopt it.

Tuesday’s enactment of the policy change was vetted with School Board Chair Pat Baker, Houck told the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

“Our community, through its elected School Board, had chosen by majority vote last June 28 to make masks optional if the Executive Order allowed it,” Houck said via email. “We simply followed through with that directive.”

With Culpeper schools starting a new semester, waiting until Monday to make the change “did not seem to make sense,” he said.

Youngkin’s order, which is meeting resistance from some of Virginia’s largest school districts, is slated to take effect Monday.

“The public heard about the mask optional order through media reports, so we did not seek to cause confusion,” Houck wrote.

“Per a federal order, masks must be worn on any mode of public transportation to include on a school bus, a bus chartered by CCPS, or other CCPS vehicle transporting students or staff,” Culpeper County Public Schools announced Tuesday.

Masks will remain mandatory for people with COVID-19 infections, who are a close contact of an infected person, or who are coming off novel-coronavirus isolation, the school system said. That’s per the division’s COVID-19 Mitigation Plan.

School staff has previously modified the Mitigation Plan on orders from Superintendent Brads, and informed the School Board, Houck said.

In August, the Culpeper School Board voted 4-3 to reaffirm its June position that it was up to parents whether their child wears a face covering in a school building.

Vice Chair Anne Luckinbill and members Pat Baker and Barbee Brown opposed that decision, which came at the end of a contentious meeting at which 38 parents spoke, with a majority favoring the mask-optional policy. Then-School Board Chair Marshall Keene and members Crissy Burnett, Deborah Desilets and Betsy Smith voted for the mask-optional policy.

Several Culpeper teachers, a Culpeper Medical Center nurse and Culpeper NAACP leaders urged requiring masks to protect younger children, their family members and the community from the coronavirus’ Delta variant, which had swept the nation.

Now, the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health continue to recommend masking in schools to reduce transmission of the virus.

Youngkin’s executive order, No. 2, states that “a child whose parent has elected that he or she is not subject to a mask mandate should not be required to wear a mask under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education, or any other state authority.”

It also says the superintendent of public instruction will issue new guidance for the prevention of COVID-19 in schools.

Some of the state’s largest school districts—from Arlington and Fairfax counties to Richmond and Henrico County, to Norfolk and Chesapeake—say they will continue to require masks, saying a state law requires Virginia to follow federal guidance that recommends masks in schools.

Enacted by a bipartisan vote, the 2021 state law says each Virginia school board is required to offer in-person instruction that adheres “to the maximum extent practicable” to COVID-19 mitigation guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC currently recommends universal masking by anyone 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status, The Associated Press reports.

Stafford County Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Taylor told residents Sunday that current mitigation strategies, which include masking, will continue until Youngkin’s executive order takes effect.

Fredericksburg public schools will continue to require staff, students and visitors to wear masks while inside schools, they announced Monday. “Layered prevention strategies have been successful in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools which has allowed us to provide in-person learning that is required by Virginia law,” the division said in a statement.

Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras tweeted Saturday that ”@RPS_Schools will maintain its 100% mask mandate for students, staff, and visitors.”

Alexandria’s school system said Sunday that it “will continue to abide by the health and safety guidelines of the CDC and the Alexandria Health Department and continue to require all individuals to wear masks that cover the nose and mouth in ACPS schools, facilities and buses.”

Fairfax County schools said they plan to continue to require students and staff to wear masks. Arlington County’s public schools said their mask requirement is unchanged.

On Saturday, shortly after he took office as Virginia’s 74th governor, Youngkin issued nine executive orders, one of which will end the statewide COVID-19 mask mandate in K-12 schools beginning Jan. 24.

In a weekend interview with Fox News Sunday, Youngkin said he will “consider all options” to preserve an opt-out for parents from local school mask mandates.

“In Virginia, it is clear under law that parents have a fundamental right to make decisions for their children’s upbringing, their education and their care,” Youngkin said. “And so we are providing parents an opt-out. We’re providing them the ability to make the right decision for their child with regard to their child’s well-being.”

“We are going to use all the authority that I have to consider all options to protect that right,” he said.

Reporting by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Free Lance-Star contributed to this report.

cschemmer@starexponent.com

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