Classes start Monday for Page students with masks, but no transgender policy

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Bus at LES 1st day 09-10-20
A bus drops off students at Luray Elementary on the first day of school for the 2020-21 school year.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Aug. 21 — As the 2021-22 school year gets set to kickoff on Monday for an estimated 3,160 students in the county, there are a number of divisive issues that seem to have some parents and administrators at odds. However, after more than a year of dealing with impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — especially remote learning — there seems to be one central issue that everyone agrees on: Students need in-person instruction.

“We want kids in our buildings for instruction,” Dr. Antonia Fox, superintendent of Page County Public Schools, told members of the Page County School Board last week. “We’re going to do whatever we can to keep kids in the building.”

One key compromise to reaching that shared goal will be the wearing of masks by everyone (including visitors) inside all school buildings, as mandated by Gov. Ralph Northam a few hours before the Aug. 12 school board meeting.

“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” Governor Northam stated in a press release. “That’s why the General Assembly passed this law with overwhelming bipartisan support. This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply. I’m grateful to the work of the General Assembly and the Health Department, and I look forward to a safe start to the school year.” 

As of July 28, CDC guidelines include universal masking for all students, teachers, and staff. SB 1303 was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the General Assembly earlier this year. Children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive any available vaccination, which is one reason CDC updated its guidance to recommend universal masking in all K-12 schools. 

“We know that masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” said Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver. “As cases rise in our communities, universal masking and other mitigation measures will ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for Virginia’s children.”

However, despite the CDC guidelines and bipartisan action by the General Assembly, prior to the governor’s mandate, many school districts wanted to make their own decisions about masks — including Page.

“The governor changed everything that was going to happen here tonight in my opinion,” Dist. 4 school board member Duane Painter said during the Aug. 12 school board meeting. “We were going to have a vote on masking, and I think it would have been optional…’cause we listen to the community.”

“But this governor, who I have very little respect for right now,” Painter continued, “has superseded us…all of us…made us as though we were useless…that we cannot run our own lives.”

Dr. Fox told school board members last week that administrators will have to watch COVID-19 transmission levels in order to make future decisions about whether or not to temporarily shutter local schools during the school year. School districts all across the state will use the same metrics to make similar decisions, such as the number of COVID cases per 100,000 population, the CDC’s rated level of transmission, and the county’s current positivity rate and testing levels.

With local schools opening on Monday, Page County has reported 30 new cases of COVID-19 in the last three days, including 18 on Thursday. The county’s positivity rate was last reported on Aug. 16 at 11.2 percent, and the CDC rates the transmission level for the virus locally at the highest level.

Both state and local school officials believe the best way to combat these rising numbers is to enforce the mask mandate.

“The vast majority of school districts have chosen to follow the CDC and keep their school communities safe,” said State Superintendent Dr. James Lane. “Universal masking has worked in school settings across Virginia for the past year and a half, and it remains a critical part of our safety protocols. I’m grateful to Governor Northam and Dr. Oliver for this order, which will ensure uniformity across all school districts and keep students safely in their classrooms — no matter where they live in Virginia.”

While Virginia touts that two-thirds of its adult population statewide is fully vaccinated, less than 40 percent of Page County’s population is fully vaccinated. With the lowest vaccination rate and the highest positivity rate of any jurisdiction within the Lord Fairfax Health District, the problem of COVID-19 transmission within local schools could be compounded by parents who are seeking “exceptions” or outright planning to defy the mandate. A high number of requests for “exemptions” prompted a public notification from the superintendent on Friday.

“Over the past week there has been a lot of different information circulating and we have attempted to communicate that we were working on mask exception forms for parents. This process has obviously taken much more time than we anticipated and has created some confusion in the process,” Dr. Fox stated in a letter to parents. “I need to clarify one piece of information that is inaccurate. Many people, including me, have been using the word exemption when referring to options related to masking. The Health Order issued on August 12 uses the words exception and accommodation, not exemption. Specifically, it states that ‘any person who declines to wear a mask because of a medical condition or a sincerely held religious objection to wearing a mask in school may request a reasonable accommodation.’ This order does not provide for an option where students or staff do not wear a face mask at all.”

The superintendent attempted to explain to parents that they can not simply write an excuse for their child.

“I recognize that some parents have submitted a letter to the division with the expectation that this would automatically allow their child to attend school without a mask. These letters can be a part of the division mask forms which parents can submit, but they do not provide a blanket allowance to not wear a mask or use the accommodations provided,” Dr. Fox wrote. “In order for your child to participate in in-person instruction, they must wear a face mask or have a division-approved exception with an accommodation. Not wearing a mask is not an option nor is it an allowable accommodation. Acceptable accommodations are the use of a division-approved face shield or the use of a clear face mask.”

Students and faculty who test positive for COVID-19 will have to show seven days of negative PCR tests in order to return to school buildings. However, the masking policy should reduce the number of people who come in contact with an infected person that have to be quarantined. Masks will also be required on all transportation.

“If you choose not to have your child use the exception and accommodation that the school division is providing, then you will need to enroll them in our virtual learning program,” the superintendent stated. “This program is different from what your children may have experienced last year. By law, PCPS is required to only offer
in-person instruction this year, with a virtual option provided on an as-needed basis only.”

At last week’s school board meeting, Dr. Fox told school board members that she and her staff will seek to resolve issues over masks and work with parents to find a compromise and not interrupt instruction.

“We don’t want to push it to become a disciplinary issue. We need the students there to recover [their learning],” the superintendent said. “So if the masks is the issue that’s going to stop them, then we need to engage in a conversation to see what we can do to no longer make that an issue.”

The school division reminds parents not to send their students to school if they are not feeling well or showing any symptoms. Dr. Fox also put out a plea to not take out frustrations over the situation on faculty and staff.

“We all hoped that this school year would be one where the pandemic was behind us. Unfortunately, this is not the reality as the Delta variant has thrown us a curveball. As the Superintendent, I have the profound obligation to ensure the health and safety of every single student and staff member each day, all 3,900-plus of them. This is not a responsibility that I take lightly. Keeping students in school is a priority and to do that we have to use as many mitigation strategies as possible. We cannot provide as much physical distancing as we did last year as most of our students are back in school, so masking becomes very important,” Dr. Fox wrote in her letter.

“I recognize that for some parents and guardians, wearing a mask and the issuance of the health order is very, very frustrating. As we begin school, I ask you to please not take your frustrations out on our teachers, staff, and administrators. They are doing what they have been asked to do, and as a division, we are doing what we are required to do,” the letter continues. “We want the start of school next week to be one that is uninterrupted and smooth for every single student, parent, and staff member! Sending your child to school maskless in an effort to protest the decisions that have been made may only negatively impact their wellbeing and that of other students.
We ask that you sincerely consider this and not impede everyone’s ability to focus on academics, friendships, and getting back to the normal routines of school. Let’s work together as partners for our children!”

One change that is not being made this school year is the adoption of a transgender policy. After consulting with their attorney, school administrators told school board members that the division’s current policies meet all eight standards required under new state code. The only changes made were references of “his” or “hers” was changed to “their”, but school board members were adamant about not adopting any new or official policy regarding transgenders at their Aug. 12 meeting.

“PCPS has not formally adopted the transgender model policy from VDOE, but stand behind our current policies as written, as they protect and support all students,” said school board chairman Jason Breeden, who read a statement on behalf of the board. “We find that our policies are significant. Our goal is to provide a safe and welcoming environment to all students.”

Page County Public Schools has also announced its policy for providing free meals to all children served under the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. All schools in the division will be participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) as implemented under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Enrolled students will be offered a nutritious meal for breakfast and lunch each day at no charge to the household.

The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) is allowing school divisions to operate the Seamless Summer Option during school year 2021-2022. This flexibility allows the school division to continue to offer healthy and nutritious meals and/or snacks at no charge to all students.

For the first week of school, all students will be let out on early release at 12:30 p.m.

•••

PARENT RESOURCES

• PCPS Mask Exceptions and Accommodations Form: https://5il.co/xlqb

• PCPS Religious Accommodation Request: https://5il.co/xlqd

• PCPS Acceptable Face Shields: https://5il.co/xlqg

• Full letter from Superintendent Antonia Fox: https://5il.co/xlqm

• Forms may be submitted online or scanned copies may be sent to [email protected].

• Virtual Learning in PCPS

  1. Virtual learning will be offered through Edgenuity.
  2. Students will learn asynchronously and will have access to a teacher from Edgenuity on a
    regular basis.
  3. All content aligns with the Virginia Standards of Learning and most courses are available to
    students. Some students may have to select a different elective option.
  4. Students will be provided with a PCPS device.
  5. Parents need to submit an application which will be reviewed by school division staff to
    ensure students will be successful learning online.
  6. Students need consistent access to the internet or will need to travel daily to one of the
    available Wi-Fi spots in the county.
  7. Students should have a past history of success with learning online both academically and in
    their participation and attendance.
  8. Students will be able to participate in sports and extracurricular activities, but will be
    required to wear masks when inside the building, and in the locker rooms or other facilities in
    the school. PCPS is currently not requiring students to wear masks when actively competing on
    the field or court but we are obligated to do so when competing against school divisions who
    require a mask when competing or we forfeit the match.
  9. Students may return to in-person learning at any point during the school year

For more information visit the Page County Public Schools website.

•••

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