Highland Postpones Start Of School Year Until October

Highland County students will not be returning to school next week wearing masks. Or NOT wearing masks, for that matter. In an unexpected and bizarre twist to the story of whether Highland County schools will follow the Governor’s health emergency mandated order for visitors, staff and students pre-K-12 to wear masks in schools, the Highland County School Board voted Tuesday evening to postpone the start of schools until Friday, October 1st.

This was the third meeting of the Board to address this issue. On the afternoon of August 12th, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued the health order mandating masks. In a meeting that evening, the Board voted 2-1 to defy that order, rejecting the administration’s proposed mitigation plan which followed the mandate, as well as the proposed Equitable Access for All Students policy. The Board then held a closed session for legal consultation on Tuesday, August 24th, following a presentation from Dr. Laura Kornegay, Health Director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Central Shenandoah District.

Tuesday evening’s meeting was moved to the gymnasium from the cafeteria, due to expected attendance. Once public comment opened, 21 speakers addressed the Board, 17 in person and 4 via virtual connection. The majority of the speakers opposed the mask mandate, citing their beliefs on the ineffectiveness of masks, detrimental effects on students and learning, and parental choice considerations. Some also questioned the legality of the August 24th meeting. Unlike the initial meeting however, a number of speakers did advocate for the mask mandate, including educators who spoke both individually, and via a statement from the Highland County Educators Association. These speakers cited safety concerns, not only for students and staff, but for the entire community, as well as questioning the example being set for children by the Board flouting authority and law. Speakers comments were time bound, with the gym buzzer sounding at the end of their time period, although several speakers continued after the signal.

After an hour, the public comment period was closed. During Board commentary, Sherry Sullenberger opened her remarks saying said this would “likely upset the apple cart”, but she wanted to look at when schools should actually open. She said data showed that a spike of cases was imminent which would last into October. She said while the law stipulated all schools would be held in person, and follow CDC guidelines, it did not stipulate when schools had to start. She said she was not comfortable sending students back at this time, with or without masks. Board chair Kenny Hodges then made a motion to once again reject the mitigation plan requiring masks, which died for a lack of a second. Board member Joe Neil then made a motion to accept the plan as presented, which also died for a lack of second. Ms. Sullenberger then made a motion to postpone the start of school until at least October 1st. Mr. Hodges asked if she would amend the motion to stipulate that if it was safe to return at that time, it would be without wearing masks, which she declined to do. Mr. Hodges then seconded the motion, and it passed 2-1, with Mr. Neil dissenting. The Board also once again rejected the Equitable Access plan, 2-1 with Mr. Neil again dissenting.

Before adjourning, Ms. Sullenberger suggested a number of items to be examined in the continuing discussion of safety and mitigation, and said she would like to see a committee of staff, students, administration and community members be formed to study these.

The Board has their regularly scheduled September meeting next week, and it was noted these concerns were not likely to be resolved by then. For clarification purposes, the question was asked if, lacking a resolution between now and October 1st, would children return under the mask mandate, given that the motion did not reject the mandate. Mr. Hodges indicated another meeting could be called between now and then if necessary.

Story By

Scott Smith

Scott Smith is the General Manager for Allegheny Mountain Radio and Station Coordinator and News Reporter for WVLS. Scott’s family has deep roots in Highland County. While he did not grow up here, he spent as much time as possible on the family farm, and eventually moved to Highland to continue the tradition, which he still pursues with his cousin. Unfortunately, farming doesn’t pay all the bills, so he has previously taken other jobs to support his farming hobby, including pressman/writer for The Recorder, and Ag Projects Coordinator for The Highland Center. He lives in Hightown with wife Michelle and son Ethan. In his spare time, he wishes he had more spare time, especially to ride his prized Harley-Davidson motorcycle. scott@amrmail.org

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