By Callie Hietala
The Henry County School Board voted 6-1 in favor of adhering to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masking optional for public school students.
Board member Ben Gravely, of the Iriswood District, was the sole vote against following the order.
Gravely broached the topic near the end of the board’s Feb. 3 meeting.
“Sometimes the hardest decisions, the hardest things we do, have the best results and I think what we’re going through now is one of those times,” he told his fellow board members.
“I was elected by the citizens of the Iriswood District of Henry County. As a board member, I believe that an effective school board represents the interests of the professional school staff and workers of the school who are committed to meeting the needs of our young people.
“I think schools and boards across this country are being used as pawns for individual personal agendas on political issues,” he said, and clarified his thoughts and actions were not reflective of any party affiliation but rather “what I believe is right to keep schools safe, schools open, and the people that are sacrificing so many things because of what they love—our teachers.”
“This board has been accused of making a vote on this mask optional process,” Gravely said. “As a board, our relationships depend on openness and communication … I think we need to be transparent and have a vote on whether or not we’re going to continue with this process.”
Gravely then made a motion calling for a vote on whether or not masks should be optional for Henry County’s students.
Francis Zehr, of the Ridgeway District, seconded the motion.
“The previous governor had a different viewpoint than the new governor,” he said, adding that the board previously decided to follow the governor’s recommendations and executive orders which, he said, it is continuing to do, just with a new governor and a new order.
The vote on whether to vote on the issue passed 5-2, with Chairman Francis Auker, of the Blackberry District, and Elizabeth Durden, of the Collinsville District, voting against.
Zehr then made a motion that the board comply with Youngkin’s executive order, which was seconded by Durden.
Zehr’s motion passed 6-1, with Gravely as the sole nay vote.
It all comes down to relationships said superintendent Sandy Strayer. “Every teacher that I have talked to that had some apprehension about mask wearing, I talked to about their relationship with their students.” If a student doesn’t want to wear a mask, “if you have a great relationship with that student and you explain that there’s someone in your family with a health problem, or you have a health problem, and it may cause you not to be in that classroom,” then most students would comply because they have a great relationship and respect for their teachers.
Strayer said so far, “things have been going very well in schools, and I hope they stay that way.”
“Martinsville City Public Schools previously announced it would continue requiring its students to wear masks in school.”