Highland School Board August Meeting
Shortly after 2:00 pm on Thursday, August 12th, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued a public health emergency order which mandated the wearing of masks in all public and private schools in Virginia for staff and students K-12. The Highland School Board addressed this during their regular August meeting later that evening, as well as the school administration’s proposed Equitable Access for All Students policy, which the Virginia Department of Education had mandated all schools develop.
Superintendent Dr. Thomas Schott explained both during his presentations to the Board. The 2021-22 COVID mitigation plan would include masks for all students, staff, and visitors to the school, as well as on buses and school vehicles. Temperature checks upon arrival at school and social distancing requirements would be in place, as well as policies for when students can return after running a temperature or in the case of a positive test result. He noted, that were the Board not to approve the plan, the school’s insurance would not cover any liability issues, since the decision would be counter to the Virginia Department of Health’s direction.
In explaining the Equitable Access for All policy, the development of which was mandated by bills passed in the Virginia legislature and now in Virginia code, Dr. Schott explained that the school already had adequate facilities in place, including private and “all gender” bathrooms, as well as shower facilities. A review of current policies showed that inclusive language, including gender identity, has been present. Policy manuals would be updated with pronoun changes.
During public comment, 12 speakers addressed the Board, both in person and virtually, with all but one advocating that the Board not pass either policy. They cited their belief that masks were ineffective, that parental choice was being taken away, and that numerous county school boards had already rejected both mandates, including Bath, which had opted to send letters to parents allowing them to opt out of mandatory masking for their child. It was clarified by the administration that the decisions on masking had occurred before the Governor’s actions that day.
When voting began on the agenda items, it was noted that the Equitable Access plan was not slated to be voted on that evening. It had been on the agenda for presentation for ratification at the next meeting. The audience strongly objected to this, saying it needed to be voted on before the school year began, as it affected parents’ decisions to send their children to Highland Schools. Board chair Kenny Hodges them made a motion to amend the agenda, which had previously been approved, to add an item to vote on the plan. It was seconded by Sherry Sullenberger, and passed 2-1, with Joe Neil dissenting. The Board then voted on the Access plan, rejecting it 2-1, with Mr. Neil voting no in protest of the procedure in bringing the vote to the table. And then, after a long discussion period, with Mr. Hodges and Ms. Sullenberger in favor, and Mr. Neil opposed, the Board voted not to follow the mitigation plan, instead sending a letter home to parents to allow them to opt out of mandatory masking for their children.