AMHERST — Fielding concerns of reopening school as COVID-19 cases more than doubled in the past month in Amherst, the county’s school board voted Thursday to delay the start of school two weeks and require facial coverings for students while inside buildings.
The 5-2 vote to require the facial coverings and the 6-1 decision to push back the first day of school from Aug. 26 to Sept. 9 came after a public comment session that drew a mixed public reaction. A few residents asked the board to stay the course in returning children to school under a plan the board recently approved that includes a hybrid in-person model with social distancing and a virtual distancing learning academy for those wishing to stay at home.
The return plan includes two groups of elementary students going to school on a four-day week at staggered times to maximize space in buildings while they are at home on Fridays. Students in middle school and high school would be split into two groups with two days in school and two days learning at home at staggered times.
Superintendent Rob Arnold told school board members, Amherst County as of Thursday had 101 cases of COVID-19, an increase of 65 cases since July 1. “That is not the trend we want to have,” Arnold said.
Several educators during the public comment session asked the board for more time they said is needed to prepare for starting school, particularly for the elementary-age students, in the most stressful of circumstances. The return plan previously called for requiring masks for teachers and staff when the 6-foot rule can’t be adhered to and having it optional for students and required on buses.
Arnold said he recently met with the head of the Central Virginia Health District, which supports delaying school a few weeks and requiring facial coverings. Board members asked if students would be disciplined for not wearing facial coverings, a hot-button topic that drew debate during the board’s dialogue Thursday.
“It will be an age- appropriate response,” Assistant Superintendent William Wells said, explaining the safety measure will require conversations with students and families on its importance. “I don’t think any of us intend to suspend a student for not wearing a mask ... I don’t see it being a discipline issue.”
The division will accept documentation on medical conditions that would prohibit any child from wearing a mask, according to school officials. Skip Hagerty, a Central Elementary School teacher, told the board she is concerned the plan initially didn’t mandate masks for students but required them for teachers. She also expressed concern some families may send children to school without screening them for symptoms as required.
“It’s quite scary for the staff and faculty to be coming back face to face when we don’t know what is going to happen,” Hagerty said.
Leecy Fink, an Elon resident, said she begs the board to stay the course in bringing students back to school because it’s so vital for them to be there. “If we’re allowed to reopen, please do so,” Fink said, referring to state oversight. “Our students desperately need to be in school.”
She said in March when the pandemic hit the county she wouldn’t have wanted to send her children back to school with masks, but now she will do so if that’s what it takes to get them back.
Board members Ginger Burg and Amanda Wright opposed requiring the facial coverings, and board member Christopher Terry said he supports it with some reservations.
“I don’t like masks,” Burg said, adding she is concerned elementary-age children will struggle with the adjustment. “I believe it’s a personal choice. I still believe we have personal freedoms.”
Board member David Cassise said he personally wears facial coverings when he goes out in public. “For me, from my standpoint, I would prefer not mandating them. However, that is not a deal-breaker for me.”
Arnold said requiring face coverings is expected to bring a shift of students who feel the facilities are more safe and are electing for now to learn at home.
Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon said she didn’t like wearing her mask for an eight-hour workday but did it because of the need to stay out in front of a pandemic that has turned life upside down. Speaking to a mostly masked audience Thursday, she addressed the chief concern to keep staff and students safe.
“We have to protect ourselves, our children and the people around us,” Liggon said. “It’s going to take the entire village to get us back together again.”
Cassise was the only board member to vote against delaying the school year to Sept. 9, a move that also brings back the majority of staff Aug. 10 rather than Aug. 3. Jim Gallagher, director of human resources, said the extra time is helpful because a number of needed staff positions are vacant.
Arnold said registration also is down considerably this year and the delay allows more time for preparing. Cassise said he is concerned the longer the division waits the more potential there is to go with a virtual model, voicing a desire to make sure students are monitored during such uncertain times when mental health breakdowns are on the rise.
“The longer we go without them being in class, the harder it’s going to [be to] get them back where they once were,” Cassise said. “We need to figure out how to get there with the resources we have.”
Liggon said the return plan is subject to change in the constantly changing climate of COVID-19, adding virtual learning could come into play if another shutdown takes place.
“Either way, we’re going to be ready,” Liggon said.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.