Rappahannock County School Board Special Called Meeting

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Review of Recent Covid Guidance

Rappahannock County Elementary School Gymnasium

6 p.m.

The Rappahannock County School Board on Wednesday at a special meeting held in the elementary school gymnasium opted to not mandate universal masking in classrooms for the upcoming school year, instead maintaining its previously established stance of strongly recommending the practice.

The meeting was called following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revising its guidance last week to recommend that all K-12 students wear masks in the fall as the highly infectious delta variant has given rise to a new surge in reported COVID-19 cases across the country, primarily in unvaccinated pockets. The Virginia Department of Health in July also recommended that all elementary schools require indoor masking.

The Board’s decision was reached after nearly every member of the body except for one, Rachel Bynum, of Piedmont District, voiced support for keeping masking optional. A vote on the matter wasn’t held on Wednesday since the body didn’t formally change its stance on the issue, having reached the same conclusion at its July meeting.

The move, however, still leaves the body able to amend its stance on masks in the future.

Bynum, who was one of only two people in the crowded gymnasium wearing a mask, cautioned that the delta variant, which behaves very differently than the original form of the virus, could pose a significant threat to staff and students, many of whom aren’t vaccinated as children under 12 can’t receive any of the emergency approved vaccines.

“Asking some people [to wear a mask], but not everyone in a group, isn't an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID. Especially the delta variant, which is more transmissible, according to many studies, than something like Ebola,” she said. “So it’s a different animal that we’re dealing with right now than we were last fall.”

Board Member Chris Ubben, of Wakefield District, dismissed masking as a fear mongering device, saying that the mitigation efforts the school already has in place, such as a revamped ventilation system, are sufficient for preventing spread.

“It’s a band-aid. It makes you feel better,” he said of masks.

Public health experts largely agree that masks are an incredibly effective tool in preventing spread of the virus. Virginia Department of Health Population Health Coordinator April Achter said this week that masking in schools helps to keep students learning in-person without them having to become quarantined if a student in the classroom tests positive.

Board Member Lucy Maeyer, of Hampton District, Vice Chair Larry Grove, of Stonewall-Hawthorne District, and Chair Wes Mills, of Jackson District, were all far less critical of masks, but nonetheless steadfast in their preference to leave them optional in schools.

Rappahannock County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley also presented data to the body on the district’s record containing the spread of the virus throughout the previous school year, as well as new mitigation efforts and the results of a parent and staff survey on masking in school.

Per the survey’s results, 60 percent of parents and staff said they wanted masking to remain optional, while 30 percent said they wanted universal masking, according to Grimsley.

Much of the meeting was dominated by members of the public, including teachers and students, sharing their opinions on masking, with some touting misinformation about vaccines and masking. The vast majority of those who spoke were against universal masking in schools. 

Dr. Brooke Miller, a local physician who was in attendance, indicated he doesn’t believe masks are effective in preventing spread of the virus and claimed that they have “significant potential for harm to children.”

Rappahannock Republican Committee Chair Terry Dixon, who was also in attendance, said he doesn't believe face coverings work and that they’re used to instill fear, but that he supports families who chose to send their children to school masked.

Cassia Gainer, the Board’s student liaison, said that universal masking during last year, which was mandated by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, caused anguish for students who suffer from depression or anxiety.

“Overall, for all of the age groups, it’s really messed with us on an emotional level … it was like pulling teeth to go to school,” Gainer said. “That’s how it was for me and my sister, and for lots of our friends … Why go through all this if you can’t even talk to people anymore. The social aspect is 95 percent of the reason we go [to school], in all honesty.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Rachel Bynum.


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