EH adds mask mandate for middle, high schoolers

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eastern Hancock schools introduced a mask requirement for its middle and high school students at its board meeting on Monday, Oct. 18, joining the three other county school corporations that already require masks.

EH Superintendent George Philhower said the corporation began the school year with the intention of allowing school to remain open for the full year and returning to as close as possible to the normal environment students enjoyed before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We wanted to also allow families to make as many decisions as legally possible, and unfortunately those last two goals are kind of mutually exclusive,” Philhower said.

The state government modified requirements for school districts at the beginning of this academic year, allowing schools to forego contact tracing procedures if they require all students to wear masks. If masks are not required, students identified as a close contact of a peer who tests positive for COVID-19 are required to quarantine at home.

Eastern Hancock began the year requiring all students to quarantine for 14 days if identified as a close contact, regardless of their own masking or vaccination status.

Philhower said contact tracing hasn’t posed much of a problem at the elementary school, but it has been problematic at the middle and high schools, where students switch among multiple classes and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities.

Elementary school Principal Amanda Pyle said her school was initially identifying an average of 11 students per positive case as close contacts; she attributed this to mingling in the building’s small cafeteria. The elementary school made the decision to have some grade levels eat lunch in their classrooms so that lunch contacts could be limited to students who already share classes. Since then, she said, the average number of close contacts has dropped to four.

Middle and high school Principal Adam Barton said the issue has been more difficult for his students.

“Over the last couple weeks, our cases have spiked, especially at the middle school,” Barton said. He said about 30% of EH middle and high school students had missed school due to quarantining in the past few weeks, some of them multiple times.

A handful of EH parents spoke up at the board meeting Monday to object to mask requirements. Some suggested that the corporation adopt alternate measures, like encouraging parents to use at-home COVID tests and potentially using school funds to pay for testing kits.

Parent Susan Collins questioned the efficacy of cloth masks and said mask-wearing poses unfair challenges for some students, like her son who is dealing with a speech impediment.

“I know this is all just a government game to get us to do what we’re told,” Collins said.

Others asked whether masks would also be required for teachers and other staff. Philhower said there were no plans to implement a mask mandate for staff currently, but added that as far as he is aware, all staff members already choose to wear masks.

Philhower emphasized that the decision to require masks was not based on the medical effectiveness of mask-wearing, but was a measure to allow the corporation to keep kids in school while complying with legal requirements.

The school board approved the change by a vote of 4-1. Jim Jackson, Tammy Stunda, Tammy Settergren and Steve Brock voted in favor. Scott Johnson voted against the measure.

The change in policy will take effect today (Wednesday, Oct. 20). Students will not be required to wear masks during lunch, recess, choir or band classes; or during physical education classes involving strenuous activity. Contact tracing will continue for those periods should it be necessary.

In a newsletter sent to parents on Tuesday, Oct. 19, Philhower said the mandate will be discussed again at the board’s November meeting. He also noted that schools receive no financial incentive for requiring masks.

Also during the meeting, the board discussed a tentative collective bargaining agreement with its teachers’ union. The bargaining process has produced an agreement to give all returning teachers a minimum salary increase of $2,750. All teachers would also receive a “salary reset” replacing the corporation’s current pay scale with one that will consider both years of service and level of education.

The corporation also plans to cover the increased cost of insurance premiums for its employees and to make it easier for teachers to donate their sick days to colleagues in need.