Prince William School Board rescinds testing mandate for unvaccinated staff

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Hours after the General Assembly made masks for all Virginia public school students optional, the Prince William County School Board voted Wednesday to rescind a weekly COVID-19 testing mandate for unvaccinated division staff.

School board members said that the testing, which was implemented after supply-related delays on Jan. 24, was too much of a burden on school staff and administration without enough of a benefit when both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals can contract COVID-19.

“In the beginning of the school year when [the original] resolution was passed, our focus was getting schools open and wanting to keep them open and we have shown that we’ve succeeded in that over these last five month,” Gainesville Board member Jennifer Wall said at Wednesday night’s school board meeting. “We’ve met that goal without this program being in place.”

Wednesday night’s 5-3 vote suspended the testing mandate, but members who voted in favor expressed no interest in bringing it back. School Board Chair Babur Lateef, Justin Wilk (Potomac District), Adele Jackson (Brentsville), Lisa Zargapur (Coles) and Wall voted in favor of suspending the mandate. Loree Williams (Woodbridge), Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) and Diane Raulston (Neabsco) all voted against the suspension.

Potomac District Member Justin Wilk said he originally voted to implement the testing requirement when he thought that vaccination prevented the transmission of COVID-19. While it’s true that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can spread the virus, Virginia Department of Health data shows that unvaccinated people continue to be more likely to contract, be hospitalized from or die from COVID-19.

Case rates have plummeted across the region and within the school division over the past three weeks. On Jan. 21, over 4,700 students or staff were either in isolation with COVID or quarantined because of close contact, according to the school system’s COVID dashboard.

On Wednesday, the dashboard showed just 21 staff and 369 students in isolation from positive cases, and 341 students or staff members in quarantine due to close contact. The mandate itself affects a small minority of county school staff, as over 92% have reported full vaccination to the division.

A number of teachers have spoken at recent board meetings calling the testing requirements unfair and discriminatory, and complaining about the contractor in charge of implementation.

“It is not acceptable to sacrifice our freedoms for the greater good,” said Callie Bruton, a Gainesville High School teacher. “We have gained clarity. It is no longer about health and safety and the political theater needs to end.”

Another teacher, Kimberly Stewart, said staff were being threatened with discipline for not being vaccinated, and that their vaccination status shouldn’t have to be disclosed to the division.

“Civil liberties are rights guaranteed to us under the U.S. Constitution … right to privacy being one of them. I urge you to uphold the humanity and integrity of our system. … Good teachers are hard to find, great teachers are impossible to replace.”

But Jalen Custis, a Forest Park High School student, said the comparisons made by some speakers to the discrimination faced by African Americans during the Civil Rights movement were wrong.

“If you compare this to discrimination and segregation and what happened in 1963, you are very ignorant,” Custis said Wednesday. “If the health and safety of our teachers and students are so important, then why don’t we go the whole nine yards in following the [masking and vaccine] guidelines?”

Some teachers have also complained about the contractor implementing the testing, but Woodbridge District Member Loree Williams said the contractor was provided by the Virginia Department of Health. She said she would have been open to modifying the original regulation but didn’t want to do away with it altogether.

“This is a program that the entire board agreed to participate in. It’s still our responsibility as an employer to ensure the safety of our employees to the maximum extent of our abilities,” Williams said at the board meeting. “Unvaccinated individuals still carry a higher risk.”

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