UPDATE: Roanoke County School Board votes in favor of PreK-12 mask mandate; protesters line up outside building

Roanoke Valley News

Protesters lined up outside the Roanoke County Public Schools Central Office Building on Aug. 6, 2021 while the Roanoke County School Board was voting on a mask mandate for students and staff. (Photo: Aaron Thompson/WFXR News)

UPDATE 1:16 p.m.: The Roanoke County School Board has voted 3-2 in favor of an indoor mask mandate for all students and staff for grades PreK through 12 for the upcoming school year, despite the number of community members protesting such a mandate outside the building.

This comes after the school district announced last week that students and staff would not be required to wear masks indoors.

However, on Thursday, Aug. 5, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) was shifting its mask guidance for PreK-12 schools to align with a recent reversal by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, all students and staff are being told to mask up, regardless of vaccination status.

While Northam is not reinstating a mandate through an executive orders, he says a new law passed by the General Assembly effectively makes universal mask-wearing in schools a requirement.

The bill, which took effect on July 1, mandates school boards to offer full-time, in-person instruction with certain exceptions. It also requires divisions to provide instruction in a manner that “adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies… to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” 

Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who sponsored the bill to which Northam is referring, says the governor is misjudging the intent of the law and localities should still have the final say.

However, State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said in an interview after Northam’s news conference that school districts who don’t comply with the CDC are opening themselves up to lawsuits.

The mask mandate for Roanoke County Public Schools is set to go into effect on the first day of school, which is Thursday, Aug. 12.

According to a presentation made to the Roanoke County School Board on Friday, Aug. 6, the coronavirus transmission rate has increased over the last month, as seen in the seven-day averages below:

  • July 10: Moderate (7.3 percent; 45 new cases per 100,000)
  • July 17: Substantial (7.9 percent; 51 new cases per 100,000)
  • July 24: High (12.4 percent; 80 new cases per 100,000)
  • July 31: High (11.7 percent; 130 new cases per 100,000)

Since the school board’s last meeting, the CDC has issued a mask requirement for students and staff on the schools’ buses and other vehicles, as well as a mask recommendation for all students, staff, and visitors at K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Roanoke County school officials say the priority is to get all students back into classrooms for in-person instruction. In addition, promoting vaccination can reportedly help schools return to in-person learning and extracurriculars.

As of this writing, school officials say 80 percent of the Roanoke County Public Schools staff members have been vaccinated.

The members of the Roanoke County School Board voted on Aug. 6, 2021 to implement a mask mandate for students and staff in grades PreK-12 amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Aaron Thompson/WFXR News)

Most recently, the CDC has issued guidance recommending universal indoor masking for school students, staff members, and visitors, as well as social distancing in classrooms due to rising delta variant cases.

The CDC has also recommended a number of precautionary policies, such as sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, handwashing, staying home when sick, getting tested if you display symptoms of the virus, etc., which the school district says they already have in place.

In addition, if you are fully vaccinated but know you have been exposed to someone with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, you’re encouraged to be tested for the virus three to five days after exposure.

You can read the CDC’s full coronavirus guidance for K-12 schools by following this link.

Meanwhile, athletic and extracurricular activities for the 2021-2022 school year will follow Roanoke County Public Schools’ most recent athletic plan that implements additional mitigation strategies.

UPDATE 11:40 a.m.: A crowd of protesters lined the outside of the Roanoke County Public Schools Central Office Friday morning. They held up signs that were asking for the board to not require their kids to wear masks.

UPDATE 11:04 a.m.: The Roanoke County School Board has just gone into a closed session after calling a meeting to discuss the coronavirus update and mask requirements.

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — The Roanoke County School Board will meet at the Roanoke County Public Schools Central Office Friday morning to discuss COVID-19 and mask requirements.

The meeting takes place at 11 a.m. and will also be streamed live on the school district’s website here.

This is a developing story.

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