HANOVER COUNTY, Virginia – The Hanover County School Board decided by one vote to make masking optional for the next school year. However, the move resulted in the groups and possible actions of Governor Ralph Northam being set back due to a recently passed law.
Northam said he would issue “further clarifications” about mask requirements in schools shortly, with the clarification coming in the wake of Hanover’s mask decision.
The Hanover County NAACP has announced its opposition to the school board’s Tuesday night decision to make masks optional during the next school year. The group is calling for the decision to be overturned, while supporters said the decision was a “small victory”.
“I feel disturbed,” Hanover NAACP President Patricia Hunter-Jordan said of the decision. “Our whole organization is upset that the school board has decided against the will of the school principal to send our children back to school with options for masks.”
HCPS Superintendent Dr Michael Gill presented the school board with his recommendation that masks be mandatory at the elementary level and for those who have not been fully immunized at the secondary level. However, the board voted 4-3 in favor of making masking optional in schools.
Hunter-Jordan said his group is calling on the board to hold a special meeting to reverse its decision.
“We would like to see a universal mask mandate. However, what Dr Gill presented was much better than the option we have left now,” said Hunter-Jordan.
Dozens of people attended the hour-long meeting, many of whom were in favor of the council’s decision, including Gillian Haynes, the mother of a growing seventh grader.
“It’s a small victory because it’s based on numbers. So if the numbers change, they look at the data every day. So if the data changes, obviously, they can change their mind at any time. , “says Haynes. “I am very, very happy that the board voted the way it did. I just hope they continue to have the courage and continue to listen to parents on what is going on. better for our children because we know best. “
CBS 6 has contacted Superintendent Gill regarding the board’s decision not to follow his recommendation.
“I and my staff will carry out the will of the school board to the best of our ability. As always, the health, safety and well-being of our students and staff is our top priority, ”Gill said in a statement.
However, the council’s decision puts the school system in conflict with Governor Ralph Northam.
Last week, the governor told a news conference that a new law passed by the General Assembly last year that requires school districts to offer in-person learning also says districts must follow guidelines COVID-19 mitigation “to the extent possible”. . ”
Currently, these guidelines recommend universal masking.
“I don’t know if it couldn’t be simpler than that,” Northam said. “This is the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia and I expect our school districts to follow the law.”
Northam said that districts that break the law should have “a frank discussion with their legal counsel.”
However, the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, disagrees with the governor’s interpretation of the bill and supports the decision made by schools in Hanover County.
“I think, again, that Hanover does a very meticulous job of serving and representing its constituents and its students,” Dunnavant said. “The ‘doable’ language was specifically put there to give communities the leeway they needed to make the best decisions. They are the ones who forge the consensus. These are the ones that have a public hearing. “
CBS 6 spoke to two lawyers about the bill and they had different views on how the law should be interpreted.
“When lawmakers write sentences in the law, such as ‘where possible’, what they are doing is giving those who have to implement this law some leeway,” said Diane Toscano, founder of the Toscano Law Group. “So it’s no surprise that school districts themselves decide what this means in terms of masking students. If the General Assembly hadn’t foreseen this interpretation, they wouldn’t have written these words. in the statute. So if a local school division does not find masking practical, they will rely on those words to justify that decision. “
“The way I would interpret the law considering the plain language of the law is that it means you must follow existing CDC guidelines to the extent possible,” said Margaret Riley, professor of law at UVA. “If there is wiggle room in this law, if you look at it, the wiggle room actually works in the context of allowing a school – if it were to, say, have a major epidemic – to undertake mitigation strategies that might exceed what the CDC guidelines recommended. I see nothing in this law that allows the school board to undertake mitigation strategies that are inferior to what the CDC guidelines say. “
With the apparent conflict between HCPS and the governor’s interpretation of the law, neither lawyer was able to state definitively what might follow.
“I think it’s on hold,” Riley said. “I’m not entirely sure what kind of strategies the state would undertake. And part of that may depend on the negotiations the state has with this school board. I think ultimately, in my opinion. , if this case were to go to court it would eventually fail. I think the school board would be required to follow the current CDC guidelines or whatever guidelines were at the time of the decision. “
The bill and its potential implications were discussed at Tuesday night’s meeting. CBS 6 reached out to the board for further comment on the matter and was referred to board chairman Ola Hawkins, who did not respond Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said the governor would issue updated guidance on the matter soon.
“SB 1303 was passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. This is not about politics: Students learn best when they are in class, and masks help protect everyone, especially children who are not yet vaccinated. This law will help keep schools open and ensure the safety of staff, teachers and students, ”Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email. “While the vast majority of school divisions have complied with the law, it is clear that a few need further clarification. We plan to provide this shortly and expect all school districts to do so. that need.”