Masks will remain in Prince William County schools, at least for now, although the division is making changes to quarantine requirements.
Superintendent LaTanya McDade told the School Board Wednesday that teachers and students will still be required despite an executive order by Gov. Glenn Youngkin over the weekend seeking to make masks optional.
Youngkin’s order, which goes into effect Jan. 24, said parents could opt out of having their children wear masks in schools without needing to provide any explanation.
School divisions are scrambling because the order contradicts a state law passed last year that requires public schools to follow COVID-19 mitigation guidelines “to the maximum extent practicable” as propagated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and those guidelines currently include wearing masks in schools.
School officials in Manassas, Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax, Fauquier and Loudoun counties have also announced this week that they will keep their mask mandates.
McDade said no changes are currently planned to the mask requirements, but changes to quarantine requirements will be announced by the end of the week. She said the changes will decrease missed in-person instruction time due to exposure to the virus.
Youngkin hasn’t said how he will enforce his executive order, although Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears said on Fox News earlier this week that the state could withhold funding from noncompliant school divisions.
School Board member Loree Williams said students should continue wearing a mask while local boards determine if Younkgin’s executive “order is in line with the law.”
Youngkin’s office hasn’t confirmed or denied if funding will be withheld or if Youngkin is considering other specific enforcement mechanisms, the Virginia Mercury reported.
Board members were split over where they want the school division to go with masking.
School Board member Jennifer Wall said that “I encourage that, regardless … every student, masked or not, receives the welcome they deserve” at schools.
School Board member Lisa Zargarpur said she is hoping for an “off-ramp” to wearing masks in schools, just not at the moment because of the surge in cases.
School Board member Lillie Jessie said that until research emerges saying people won’t be at risk of contracting the virus if they go maskless, she supports masking.
“Corona is not something you can see,” she said. “From my perspective as a principal, I would want every child to wear a mask.”
Chair Babur Lateef said he is committed to working with state agencies to determine a process to reduce masking in schools.
School Board member Justin Wilk says the division needs to review its contact tracing policies because they are putting a great strain on school nurses. He did not comment on the mask policy.
School Board members Diane Raulston and Adele Jackson did not directly address the mask requirements during the meeting.
Daania Sharifi, the student representative to the School Board, said the schools should continue to implement COVID-19 mitigation measures to avoid any returns to virtual learning. She didn’t specifically address the mask mandate.
On Wednesday morning, the Prince William school system’s dashboard showed 1,335 students and 345 staff members isolating due to COVID-19 symptoms or positive tests and another 3,145 students and 22 staff members in quarantine due to close contacts. The system has about 90,000 total students and 10,000 staff members.
Prince William County has seen more than 13,000 new cases of the virus in the first weeks of 2022, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
While cases are at unprecedented levels, the county reported seven hospitalizations to start the year. The Prince William Health District, which also includes Manassas and Manassas Park, reported no deaths in that timeframe.