CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eastern Hancock schools will keep a mask mandate for middle and high school students in place for at least another month, while school board members hope to discuss the way forward before their next meeting.
The board voted 4-1 in favor of keeping the mandate in place at its meeting on Monday, Dec. 13. Members Jim Jackson, Steve Brock and Tammy Stunda voted in favor, while Scott Johnson voted against. Fellow member Tammy Settergren was absent.
At its November meeting, the board voted to introduce the mandate for just one month in response to rising COVID-19 numbers that were sending many students home to quarantine. School corporations are required by federal law to send students who are identified as close contacts home for this quarantine period, unless they require masks.
George Philhower, Eastern Hancock superintendent, said masking has been successful at reducing the number of students who have to quarantine in response to each positive test (some close contacts are still required to, if they are in contact during a period where masks aren’t worn, like during lunch). He added that COVID numbers in the county as a whole haven’t decreased.
“A question that some community members have asked that I think is a very fair question, that I don’t know that I’ve had a good answer to, is at what point would we consider ending this?” Philhower said. “It becomes hard when we’re talking about kids missing school, and as you know it’s a complicated issue.”
At last month’s meeting, several parents spoke up about how they did not want their children to be required to wear masks at school. This time, the board offered an extended public comment period for any parents who wanted to speak, but none stepped forward to make a comment.
Philhower said two ways to go forward could be to continue voting on the policy every month, or to establish that it would be tied to county COVID metrics and would end when numbers decreased. He said other county schools have done the latter, but it might not make as much sense for EH’s small community; cases could be concentrated in other areas of the county if numbers are high, and if numbers are low, one EH family testing positive could still mean a large number of absences.
Jackson said school officials are aware that the mask requirement is unpopular with many parents.
“I think it’s clear that none of us like the mask mandate,” he said. “I think we all got to this point, and I think we’d all like to end it just as quickly as we could.”
Johnson said he wasn’t happy with the mask mandate continuing without a definitive end date. He said he’d like to see some options on the table for when to end the policy besides voting on a monthly basis or relying on county metrics.
“I don’t know that we can do this for eternity,” he said. “We’re raising kids that think that this is normal, and it’s not normal… We’ve got to have a stopping point at some point.”
Brock said the policy of requiring masks makes sense for the time being because without them, many more students will be missing classes.
“Do we go back to what we saw in late September or October, where we had almost a third or better of the middle school quarantined?” he said. “That’s not helping them get educated… Unfortunately, those are the two choices that the state has given us to choose from, and I want us to keep our kids in school so that they get educated.”
The board members ultimately decided to vote on the mask policy for the upcoming month and reconsider it again at their January meeting. Before that time, they hope to come up with other proposals for when and how to end the requirement.
Masks will remain optional at the elementary school, because students at that age have fewer close contacts and requiring masks would not significantly change the number of students who are required to quarantine, Philhower said.