Going into the new school year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam implemented a mask mandate for all K-12 schools in the state. Some school boards immediately defied the Governor’s order. Hanover County, King William County and Fauquier County, to name a few, opposed the mandate and opted for mask-optional rules in their schools. Masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19, hence why Northam mandated them. Parents complaining about mask mandates at school board meetings supposedly defend their kids. However, such purported defense comes with the blatant disregard for all other children, especially those with their own health vulnerabilities or family members with underlying medical conditions.
Having lived in Chesapeake all my life, I was embarrassed to see my old school board — and my younger brother’s current school board — initially join the ranks of these other counties’ negligence. On Dec. 14, Chesapeake’s School Board repealed its mask mandate for all students in the K-12 system. This poor decision-making was on the table last summer, when Chesapeake’s School Board originally eluded Northam’s order before finally complying. The ignorance of this original decision has now arisen again this winter. While we still don’t completely understand the omicron variant of COVID-19, its severity was evident by the time Chesapeake made this decision. On Dec. 31, the board repealed its decision — before again removing the mask mandate on Jan. 20.
These were the five school board members to initially vote down a mask mandate — Vice Chairman Colleen C. Leary, Harry A. Murphy, Christie New Craig, Angie Swygert and Michael J. Woods. Craig is no stranger to weaponizing COVID-19. In 2020, she posted to Facebook her belief that COVID-19 is just a political attack against former President Donald Trump. Furthermore, Craig and Murphy were absent from that corrective Dec. 31 meeting. In fact, Craig also posted to Facebook her disavowal of the meeting. Swygert upheld her initial decision by again voting down a mask mandate. Samuel L. Boone and Thomas L. Mercer joined their colleagues' recklessness in that January vote, with only Dr. Patricia Y. King voting to maintain the mandate.
From the presidency to governorships to local offices, conservative politicians have and continue to deny the facts around masks and vaccines. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has already undermined mask mandates by allowing parents to freely ignore them. This is blatantly inappropriate in light of the omicron variant, and Youngkin should promptly backtrack. COVID-19 cases are yet again skyrocketing, setting new records for daily positive tests. While omicron appears to be a less severe — albeit more contagious — variant of the virus, we cannot let our guard down. Youngkin has not only let Virginia’s guard down but also encouraged that risk in public schools. Thankfully, the majority of schools in the Hampton Roads area have maintained their mask mandates.
Classrooms and hallways are often tight spaces, making masks in public schools particularly important. Furthermore, those younger than 12 are currently ineligible for the booster shot. This combination will leave many students unmasked and vulnerable to COVID-19, the omicron strain of which has already proven more resistant to current vaccines. We must only look to the unmasked community members screaming at that Dec. 31 school board meeting in Chesapeake to know the example parents are setting for their children. But now is not the time to become less precautionary.
Every school board in Virginia should maintain their own mask mandates in schools. The omicron variant only makes this more crucial to limiting the spread of COVID-19, especially among unvaccinated populations. However, I know many school boards won’t do this. If they’re willing to jeopardize children under a statewide mask mandate, then they’ll most definitely risk their students when that mandate disappears. As such, I encourage all students in Virginia public schools to wear masks regardless of your school board’s decision — or your parents’ beliefs, if you can safely defy them. To all my fellow older siblings, look out for your younger ones. Explain to them the importance of masks if they don’t already know.
My brother already vowed to continue wearing his mask to school on his own volition. He is smarter than those on his school board voting to eliminate the mask mandate. He is smarter and more considerate of those around him than our Governor. I may want to slap him for chewing with his mouth open at home or leaving the bathroom a mess after showering, but I’m proud that he can resist idiotic politicians like Craig, Swygert and Youngkin. I sincerely hope that enough students like him exist that we can enter this new year with even an ounce of confidence in our collective ability to combat omicron.
Bryce Wyles is an Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.