A new law makes masks in public schools optional, so school workers are planning how to honor parent’s wishes

A child wearing a Paw Patrol mask raises her hand. Three adult women stand behind her.

Erin Wise-Ackenbom is worried her students will be in danger. 

The Albemarle High School teacher remains double-masked at all times while working. Staying safe from COVID-19 can be challenging due to the thousands of students in the school. But the school division’s mandate that everyone wear masks makes her feel safer, Wise-Ackenbom said. 

In a matter of days, that’s going to change. On Tuesday, Virginia students will no longer be required to wear masks while in school.

“I’m worried for all students whether they’re masked or not masked,” Wise-Ackenbom said. “I work with special-ed students. I’m worried about preschool students that can’t get vaccinated. There are many teachers that teach and have younger kids. It’s just a pretty dire situation right now.” 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739, a bill that will block mask mandates in public schools, into law earlier this month. The law went into effect immediately after Youngkin’s signature, giving school divisions less than two weeks to end their mask mandates. 

The new law brought on mixed emotions from local parents, students and staff. While some share Wise-Ackenbom’s fears, multiple parents who spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow said they are not concerned.

“I trust my kids to make the right decision,” said a woman, who asked her to not be named, whose two children attend Burnley Moran Elementary School.

Charlottesville City School officials said they haven’t heard from concerned parents. 

“It’s been crickets on our end,” said Lisa Larson-Torres, board chair for the Charlottesville City School Board. “Whether that’s a good thing or not, people are taking it one day at a time.” 

But some school workers are unsettled, Larson-Torres said. They fear the new law will lead to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases at the schools. They’re also concerned about the impact it will have on unvaccinated children and vulnerable workers.

Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. released a statement following the signing of the new law. He told community members that while positive cases have been declining in recent weeks, community transmission is still classified as high in the district.

The new law prevents teachers and staff from enforcing student mask-wearing in school buildings. But, Gurley said that if Charlottesville parents of elementary school children request that their child continues masking, their teachers will “offer a helpful reminder of the family wishes.”

Justin Malone, principal of Jackson-Via Elementary, said he is concerned that could become complicated, especially if a child refuses to wear a mask. He and staff members are considering ways to go about respecting parents’ wishes without breaking the new state law. 

“If a child is perhaps deeply resistant to it, or is not meeting their family’s expectations, then the question becomes: How frequently are we having to revisit this?” Malone said. “Do we need to regroup with the family and talk about what’s best for the situation? How much time is this taking? How can we be thoughtful about supporting each other with that?” 

The principal has yet to receive any masking requests from parents.

Hope Henderson, a parent of a third-grade student who attends Venable Elementary School, said that she will not request her daughter’s teacher enforce mask-wearing — she trusts her to wear it. 

Henderson played with her daughter’s hair as they started their walk home from Venable on Tuesday. Her daughter, who asked that her name be withheld, said most of her classmates, like herself, stay masked at all times. 

“I think some people might” not wear masks, Henderson’s daughter said. “But when they see that there are other people wearing masks, they might think that it would be better to wear a mask.”

Malone remains worried about transmission now that masks are soon to be optional. He believes mask-wearing is a strong aid in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and keeping everyone in schools safe. 

Jackson-Via staff regularly cycle through the various scenarios that may arise once the law kicks in, Malone said.

“Ultimately, the answer is that in a classroom, whether you’re masked or unmasked, we’re going to do our best to continue to be a community and not single out students as a result of their mask-wearing,” Malone said.

Matthew Haas, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, told parents, students, and staff following the signing of the law that no student will be questioned if they decide to not wear a mask. But, employees and visitors in any Albemarle school or facility are still required to wear them.

“This new state law does not impact other mitigation strategies as recommended by the CDC, such as the isolation of students who test positive for the virus and the quarantining of students who are identified as close contacts,” Haas wrote in a statement. 

Rochelle Garwood, a parent of two Albemarle students, wishes the law wasn’t signed. 

Garwood’s eldest daughter, Laurel, is among a few select students permitted to attend school maskless before the law was signed. Laurel suffers from severe cerebral palsy and gets panic attacks whenever she wears a mask. 

The decision was made in November after a number of parents with children with similar disabilities expressed concern at an Albemarle School Board meeting. Her daughter went back to school without her mask for only a couple of weeks, but made the switch to virtual instruction in response to the recent Omicron surge. 

Laurel will return to her school, Post High, on Monday. She’s quadruple-vaccinated (she’s received four doses due to her disabilities) so Garwood’s concerns are not as strong as they were earlier in the school year, but they persist. 

“I was happier knowing that everyone around her had to wear a mask,” Garwood said. 

Both school districts promised to uphold all other safety strategies in light of the new law. Students in the two districts will still have access to masks — KN95, disposable and cloth — vaccinations and testing. Hand washing and sanitization will also be encouraged.

For Albemarle, Haas promised the community that the district will work diligently over the next week to ensure the transition to mask optional learning will be a “seamless one.”

Last week, a group of more than 150 Charlottesville community members released a statement promising to wear their masks indoors, especially in schools. 

“We commit to doing everything we can to ensure that when that day comes, we will see all of us there, and that no more faces will be missing, and that no more families will have lost loved ones to this terrible disease,” the statement read.

The statement cited the racial disparities of COVID-19 deaths in children and the low rates of vaccinations within children between the ages of 5-11. 

According to the Blue Ridge Health District, 53% of children aged five to 11 are vaccinated in the district. Vaccinations for children within that age range were approved in late October. 

Both Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools have seen a decrease in cases following the recent Omicron surge. The highly-transmissible variant caused an increase of positive cases, which peaked in mid-January, following holiday gatherings. At its crest, 267 students in Albemarle tested positive for the virus during the week of Jan. 17. For Charlottesville, that number was at 119 the week prior. 

Like the group of Charlottesville community members, Henderson, the mom of a Venable third-grader, is worried about the single or working parents this new law may impact. Those who are unable to stay at home with their COVID-19 positive child may struggle with shifting their work schedules or face contracting the virus themself. Unvaccinated children will have one less barrier of protection against the virus.

It’s unfair to them, Henderson said.

Cases may be down for students and school employees in Charlottesville, but the ten-day quarantine still does not justify optional mask-wearing, said Henderson. 

Henderson’s third-grade daughter caught COVID-19 in January and had to be isolated for ten days. The isolation came after winter break and a series of snow days, causing Henderson to shift her schedule around. 

“I felt lucky because she wasn’t sick and we were able to do it,” Henderson said. “But, it was highly inconvenient.”