By Callie Hietala
Mask-wearing in Henry County Public Schools was the central topic of debate and discussion at the Henry County School Board’s most recent meeting. Though not on the board’s agenda for the evening, the topic was brought to the forefront by a small, but vocal group during the public comment period of the meeting.
Despite board chairman Tom Auker’s pronouncement at the beginning of public comment that “we are here to listen to you, not to engage in a question and answer period or a debate,” board members answered questions and responded to comments (some of which were shouted) from the audience, discussed the issue, and invited further public input from those who had not signed up to speak resulting in the first hour of the meeting being almost entirely devoted to the issue.
Samuel Smith of the Ridgeway district was the first to address the board.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that I think COVID is a fake disease or virus,” he began. “I understand it’s real, I had family members that have had it.” He said that only one of his children has gotten mask breaks (opportunities during the school day in which students can remove their masks) while in school, and then only because he has a doctor’s note citing his issues with asthma. When he pulls his mask down below his nose or otherwise isn’t wearing it properly in the classroom, Smith said his son is harassed by his teacher.
Smith’s wife Jessica, who also spoke, said that on the third day of school they took their son to the emergency room because he was suffering from high blood pressure, nausea, and a migraine. He now has a prescription at the school because “wearing the mask is causing his migraines to be worse.”
Samuel Smith, a welder who wears masks for his work, said he deals with carbon dioxide (CO2) daily and worries about the amount of CO2 intake while wearing a mask.
“Parents are taking it upon themselves to purchase CO2 meters and air purifier meters,” he said.
Jennifer Jones, of the Blackberry district, said she has both children and grandchildren in Henry County schools.
“Upon visiting the CDC.gov to study the mask study,” she said, “I was unsurprised to find the top cited studies were nothing more than a few months snapshot of what the virus was doing. The number one study is of two hair stylists wearing masks while working with clients in 15-minute intervals in the month of May. The number two study is of 124 Beijing households within the months of February and March. That’s only two months. This is not at all how a decisive public health study is conducted. So, where’s the logic in following the CDC, a private group?”
Jones said that prior to mask mandates, “such masks were only used in operating rooms or for visiting very seriously ill patients.”
Addressing school board member Dr. Merris Stambaugh, she said, “I know you probably didn’t wear a lot of masks before 2020. No studies were needed to justify the practice since most understood viruses were far too small to be stopped by the wearing of masks. It was also understood that long mask wearing was unhealthy for wearers for common sense and basic science reasons.”
In conclusion, Jones said “masks are not FDA approved. Under the Nuremberg code, no one may be coerced to participate in a medical experiment, so I am putting the school board, which really should be under Governor Northam, on notice.”
The Rev. Tyler Millner used some of his time at the podium to encourage and thank school officials “for all the effort by the system to keep our children safe and to help to mitigate the spread and escalation (of COVID-19).For myself and others, we are grateful for the effort and want to encourage the system to do everything that our children in particular be protected and safe, because there is no vaccine for them.”
In May, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 and up. Currently a vaccine is not approved for children under 12.
Overall, parents expressed concerns that their children’s school experience was being affected by mask-wearing. Some agreed with previous statements that masking was affecting the health of their child, citing headaches, nausea, and even vomiting. The lack of mask breaks in classes was brought up by several parents, as were reports of bullying or harassment by teachers if a child was wearing their mask improperly or not at all. Almost universally, parents who spoke at the meeting said that mask-wearing was interfering with their students’ ability to enjoy school and to learn.
“I have never seen this child cry because he doesn’t want to go to school,” Jessica Smith said of her 13-year-old son.
Her husband agreed.
“Kids are being harassed. They’re not learning. They’re not. None of my kids, none of my nieces, are enjoying school. They don’t care to go to school anymore. I had a son that was a straight-A student, and as of right now and last year, he gave up. He became a C and D student.”
Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer promised that issues of teacher harassment and lack of mask breaks would quickly be addressed. She said that she had seen mask breaks taking place in schools but would ensure that they were being universally enforced.
“We agree that a child can’t sit in class from 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon wearing a mask,” she said.
Vice chairman Francis Zehr also said he observed mask breaks in several elementary schools, including his grandson’s. If there were issues with children not being given mask breaks, they would be corrected if reported.
“We as a board hear you,” said Auker. “We understand your frustrations because we have frustrations too. We need to move past this (pandemic) and we need to move on because that’s part of what we’ve got to do as a society.”
While the issues of mask breaks and reports of teacher harassment can be addressed, the school board cannot change the masking policy without facing potential consequences from the Virginia Department of Education, which has mandated masks be worn in schools.
“The unfortunate thing,” said Auker, “is that when we think we’re turning around the corner, something else comes along. And I guess we could say, who’s fault is that? I believe in freedom too, but the unfortunate thing is that we don’t have much freedom because we have to do what’s mandated.”
In other matters, the board:
*Read a proclamation from Gov. Ralph Northam recognizing Hispanic and Latino Heritage Month.
*Approved consent agenda, including approval of payment of bills and approval of overnight and out-of-state field trip requests.
*Heard Strayer’s report, including a slideshow of each of the school’s kindergarten students.
*Approved revisions to two policies, one on educational philosophy to correct a typographical error and a policy stating that non-exempt employees may be given compensatory time in lieu of overtime compensation.
*Set the date for their next meeting for October 7 at 6 p.m.