Move would place power on how to proceed back into School Board’s hands

Dr. Colin Greene, the outgoing acting director of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, warned the Rappahannock County School Board on Tuesday that the incoming administration of Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) may lift all state-imposed pandemic mandates in schools early next year.

Lifting state-imposed mandates, such as ordering students and staff to wear masks in school as is currently part of a directive issued by the outgoing administration of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), would place the decision back into the hands of local school boards. 

“I have a feeling most COVID-related mandates will go poof on the 15th [of January] and [the Virginia Department of Health (VDH)] will … return to an advisory role,” Greene told the body on a Zoom call. “We will no longer be anything like the mask police … Republicans like to decentralize our decisions. I doubt you’re going to see the Department of Education telling you line by line exactly what to do. I think the school districts are going to have some freedom again.”

Youngkin won the election in November after making education and parent’s ability to have a say in their children’s schooling a tentpole issue of his campaign. In the event Youngkin does lift the statewide mask mandate, students will still be required to wear them on school buses as part of a directive issued by the federal government.

When the decision as to whether to require masks in school was last considered by the School Board in August before the order from Richmond was issued, the body lacked the political will to issue such a mandate after many residents spoke out in opposition to the idea.

For agenda items, visit the RCPS' BoardDocs site:

When students returned to Rappahannock schools from summer break, mostly unmasked, amid the surge of what was then the newly discovered delta variant of the coronavirus, cases spiked and quarantines surged, forcing the school system to shutter for a week to allow the dust to settle.

Greene said that it could be “risky” to forgo masks altogether if the School Board is forced to chart its own path forward without a state mask mandate as it may result in significant spread outside of school and into the community, especially as what is believed to be the highly infections omicron variant begins to spread in Virginia. A few cases of the newly identified variant have been detected in the state in recent days.

“If you want to maintain your mask mandate, I think that’s going to be something you can do in the district. You’ll also have to figure out how to enforce it,” he said.

Chair Wes Mills, of Jackson District, noted that the VDH requirement to quarantine healthy children if they come into contact with a student who had tested positive for COVID-19 causes a great deal of stress for parents who need to find care for their kids when they’re home from school. 

Greene suggested that requirement could also be axed by the incoming administration, noting that it could make sense if the school’s data indicates that most kids who are close contacts and become quarantined aren’t testing positive for the virus. 

According to Superintendent Shannon Grimsley, it’s going to be difficult for the school system, which has maintained a relatively low number of positive cases and quarantines in recent months, to loosen any restrictions without the state lifting quarantine requirements for students who haven’t tested positive.

“It would be prudent to probably stick to our guns right now through February, look at numbers, see what the [Youngkin] administration does, what new guidance we get — there’s going to be a lot to unpack,” Grimsley said.

Recommended for you