By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Jan. 21 — While the initial debate focused on whether students in Page County Public Schools should wear masks to help prevent the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the attention has quickly shifted to the misguided comment of one parent.
On Thursday night, the Page County School Board voted, 4-2, to immediately shift from universal masking used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to a “parent choice” option that coincides with Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order #02, which goes into effect on Monday.
Superintendent Antonia Fox presented four options to the board:
- Make masking the option of the parent immediately;
- Move forward with parent choice in one month “to let things settle down with the Omicron variant”;
- Continue with universal masking;
- Direct division staff to develop a data-based system to provide parent choice for masking once we reach a better place with community and school transmission rates.
Dr. Amy Painter (Dist. 3) made the motion to lift the mask mandate immediately, noting later that 85 percent of the respondents to a school survey from her district did not favor masks in schools. In the Jan. 18 survey conducted by the school division, 71 percent of 403 parent respondents opposed mask mandates — nearly mirroring the percentage of voters in the county that supported Youngkin — while 68 percent of 204 staff respondents were in favor of universal masking.
Thursday’s meeting began with a 30-minute public health presentation by Dr. David Switzer, a family physician of 24 years who now serves as the Director of Population Health for Valley Health Systems. Dr. Switzer noted that the Omicron variant has produced surges in new cases “higher than any other peaks” during the pandemic.
“We’ve had more [COVID] patients in the last two weeks than we’ve ever had during the pandemic,” Dr. Switzer said Thursday night via Zoom. “In the last week, we’ve had more than 300 employees out with COVID.”
Dr. Switzer noted that 99 percent of those exposures among health workers in the region came from their homes and the community. He stated that a rapid, significant transmission within schools could further impact operations due to staffing issues, impact local healthcare providers by potentially overwhelming facilities and impact the spread of COVID within the community as a whole.
The Luray doctor also noted Page County’s low vaccination rate (around 50 percent) and its high positivity rate (currently 42 percent). One chart illustrated how Page County’s COVID death rate is 23 times higher than densely-populated Loudoun County when comparing deaths per 100,000.
Last week, Page County reported its highest rate of new cases and its highest positivity rate of the pandemic. Page County Schools went from 49 to 77 active cases of COVID in just one week.
“We’re dealing with four outbreaks, and we haven’t been in school two weeks,” Dr. Fox said, noting that “staffing is at a critical place.”
A total of 454 cases have been reported within the local school division and three separate schools have been temporarily closed since the school year began.
Only four speakers addressed the school board following Dr. Switzer’s presentation — only one was for universal masking.
“Why is this even an issue?” stated Kelly Zitzer, noting her family’s effort to place an American flag in their yard for each COVID death in the county. “My son’s gonna keep wearing his mask.”
The other three speakers spoke in favor of Youngkin’s executive order and strongly urged the school board to follow his lead. However, one comment has now gone viral on the internet — dubbing the speaker a “Karen” that threatened violence if the universal mask mandate in schools was not lifted.
Luray resident and local dental hygienist Amelia King has a history of being vocal at school board meetings. On Thursday night, she noted how her last appearance ended with a deputy calling for back-up to make an arrest when she refused to quit speaking after her three-minute time limit had expired and she was repeatedly told to stop by the chairman. King was not arrested, but she repeated her performance Thursday night when she once again continued to speak after her three minutes were up after approaching the podium as the only speaker not to wear a mask.
“We need to think as a collective county,” she said. “We don’t need to worry about what Richmond has to say.”
King then applauded Youngkin’s executive order issued on Jan. 15 — the day of his inauguration.
“No mask mandates. My children will not come to school on Monday with a mask on, alright. That’s not happening. And I will bring every single gun loaded and ready,” King continued as she was cut-off a second time by the chairman.
Then as she left the room, King stated: “I’ll see ya’ll on Monday.”
Soon after her comments, King emailed both the Page County School Board and the Page County Sheriff’s Office to explain her comments and “apologize for the way I phrased the statement.” Dr. Painter read a message to the school board that she received from King during the meeting.
“I in no way want to imply ‘all guns loaded’ as in actual firearms, but rather all resources I can muster to make sure my kids get to attend school without masks. My sincere apologies for my poor choice in words,” read Dr. Painter before continuing to a second reply she received from King. “I’m absolutely mortified. I would never do such a thing. I was only speaking figuratively, as in alerting the media and creating a social media stir.”
Mission accomplished. Several websites have latched onto the viral story with a video clip from the livestream on YouTube. The video that saw nearly 400 live viewers (a high number for a public meeting) was approaching 4,000 views by midday Friday.
At the onset of her comments Thursday night, King admitted that “when I go off the cuff I get really passionate” and “I’m not always able to say what I want to say in the appropriate way.” Thursday night, King brought no prepared notes, and while her words may have simply been a misguided figure of speech, school officials took it seriously.
“Last night at our School Board meeting during the Citizen Comment period there were comments made that referenced weapons and were perceived by many to be threatening in nature. Page County Public Schools does not take these kind of statements lightly,” reads a statement released Friday morning. “Not only do comments such as these go against everything that we wish to model for our students, they go against the very nature of how we as a community should interact with each other. Violence or threats are never acceptable or appropriate. This kind of behavior is not tolerated from our students, faculty, staff, nor will it be tolerated by parents or guests of our school division.”
The letter from the superintendent and board chairman Megan Gordon also stated that the local school division has been in contact with local law enforcement and will be placing additional security at all schools both today and on Monday through the Page County Sheriff’s Office and the Luray Police Department.
“Luray Police Chief [Bow] Cook is investigating the incident and is in communication with the Commonwealth’s Attorney, as well as state and federal officials,” the letter states.
While “opt-out forms” will soon be distributed to Page County students, staff members will still be required to wear masks while inside all school buildings under the Virginia Department of Labor’s mandate to follow CDC guidelines — which calls for masking in indoor settings. Students will also still be required to wear masks while riding the bus under mandates regarding public transportation.
“With Omicron surging, this executive order couldn’t have come at a worse time,” District 2 school board member Roff Gubler said. “I’m really disappointed with this decision by the board.”
Gubler and Gordon were the dissenting votes against lifting the mask mandate. The chair had questioned if the board should not allow one month before evoking parent choice. However, despite the majority’s decision to abandon universal masking, the board sent a message to parents about their role in helping mitigate the spread of the virus.
“Parents have a responsibility in this,” District 5 member Jackie Sullivan-Smoot said in a passionate plea to parents to not send their children to school sick. “You can make the choice…I’ll go with that…but you have to step up and play a role.”
Gubler, the most vocal against lifting the mask mandate, painted a dim picture for the weeks to come.
“Our goal, as stated earlier, is to protect students and staff, and to keep schools open,” he said. “But there will be more and longer quarantine periods for kids, there will be more school closures and support programs will be periodically shut down…and that’s a fact, at least in the short term.”
For the latest COVID information and updates related to Page County Public Schools, check out their website.