New Kent Charles City Chronicle

News for New Kent County and Charles City County, Virginia | September 18, 2021

With public health order mandate in place, New Kent schools requiring masks for indoor facilities

By Andre Jones | August 23, 2021 8:07 pm

With disdain and frustration from both attendees and school board members, New Kent County Public Schools will require students and teachers to wear masks when entering into the building.

Despite twenty people opposing the mask mandate for schools filing into New Kent High School’s Media Center and hoisting signs that urged school board members to vote against the face coverings, it was the inability to vote and advice provided from legal staff that led to the decision.

Two weeks ago at the Aug. 9 regular school board meeting that New Kent School Board members received an update on the openings of schools. At that discussion, Superintendent of Schools Brian Nichols said that schools had the ability to have masks wearing as an option, but it was strongly encouraged by Governor Ralph Northam to follow guidelines from the Center of Disease and Control (CDC) that said mask-wearing practices should be practicable.

However, three days later on Aug. 12, a public State Health Order was issued by Northam’s office on behalf of State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver requiring that the masks be required for indoor settings of schools.

Prior to discussion, a motion was made by District 5 school board member Molly McBeath to make an exception to allow public comment at the work session, something that is normally not done. After the motion was seconded by District 1 representative Wayne Meade, the motion failed 1-4.

New Kent Superintendent of Schools Brian Nichols provided an update on the opening of schools and plans for the Sept. 7 reopening.

“A lot has happened since our last meeting,” he said, emphasizing Governor Northam’s approval of the Health Commissioner’s Mask Order that requires all students and teachers, as well as visitors, to wear masks when entering into school buildings. “That was the big shift. We worked with our legal team and our insurance provider to work through that piece.

“That is when we were told that we didn’t have the authority to supersede the mask mandate,” Nichols added. “That’s the timeline we’ve worked through and that’s where we are now.”

Nichols added that plans and strategies are currently in place in case of an outbreak.

“We have been proactive on this,” the superintendent said. “We are working through those plans as we have a flow chart of what to do and what to do when someone is exposed and who should and shouldn’t quarantine.

“We already seen one school system shut down because of staffing shortages,” Nichols added. “We are hoping that we don’t have to do a complete shift back to virtual or shut down the schools entirely. If that happens, we are going to work to open schools back up as quickly as possible.”

In-person learning will return to five days, with buses, classrooms, and cafeteria spaces operating at normal compacity. Parents and guardians are asked to home daily screenings.

“If your child is sick or not feeling well, keep them at home,” Nichols commented.

With the superintendent’s presentation for the return on in-person learning complete, school board members were now at the helm of the discussion.

“This is not something we can vote on as this was an order from the governor’s mandate,” said District 2 school board member Kristin Swynford. “I want to give board members the opportunity to comment on this.”

“Obviously, this has been a tremendous turn of events in the last two weeks,” said Meade. “I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this point where the governor and his health supporter to mandate masks.

“One of my frustrations that is still on the table is that it’s hard to get information,” the District 1 representative continued. “The Chickahominy Health District still hasn’t provided the numbers that we need. As I expressed to the superintendent, I don’t like it that we are in a one-size fits all format. We’re not in a hotbed like Northern Virginia or Chesapeake. We need to make decisions based on our district.

“Unfortunately, the school board’s hands have been tied to the law,” Meade concluded.

“I totally agree with you,” chimed in McBeath. “One thing I will continue to raise to the board is what’s our exit strategy and where we will go. That’s going to be in the forefront of my mind.”

“We’ve always been open to our public and I encourage them to wear masks,” said Swynford. “I encourage you to write to the governor, to the state director of education.

“I don’t want to be in a mask,” continued the District 2 member. “I am frustrated. We saw seniors graduate in June without masks. Now, this is a setback. But our objective is to keep working on this and make changes to it. This discussion will not be set aside.”

Exceptions to wearing a masks indoors include documented religious beliefs, documented health issues, physical education classes, and athletics.