WILLIAMSBURG-JAMES CITY COUNTY — The Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools (WJCC) School Board discussed COVID-19 protocols and plans moving forward during the Tuesday, Jan. 18 meeting.
The Board heard from members of WJCC Schools Health Advisory team, which addressed questions asked from the public regarding COVID-19 prevention and mitigation strategies.
In light of Executive Order 2, issued by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Sat., Jan. 15, which makes masks voluntary for children in public schools, the mask mandate was the major topic of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting.
As Executive Order 2 does not go into effect until Monday, Jan. 24, WJCC issued a letter to families earlier this week stating that it will continue its mask mandate for students and staff while in school buildings until the Virginia Department of Education issues further guidance.
With models suggesting that the COVID-19 surge will peak around Jan. 23 before seeing a decline in cases, the WJCC Health Advisory team suggested that the division continue with using a “multiple layers” strategy in schools.
The health officials said that, while no single strategy works perfectly, the combination of the mitigation layers works. This includes masking, avoiding face touching, hand hygiene and staying home when sick.
The division’s Chief Operating Officer Daniel Keever told the Board that the division is beginning the process of introducing the “test-to-stay” protocol to three schools: Berkeley Middle School, Lafayette High School and Laurel Lane Elementary School.
The test-to-stay protocol would limit the number of students who are expected to stay home as a close contact to someone who tested positive for the virus. Students who are exposed to COVID-19 can still attend school as long as they continue to test negative for the virus.
WJCC Superintendent Dr. Olwen Herron said that the division’s goal since the beginning of the school year has been to keep students in school, and that keeping the mask mandate through the peak of the pandemic will help avoid a return to virtual learning.
“We also believe that adults do better teaching without masks, and students need to be seen. We believe all of that, we recognize that that’s very difficult. But we also recognize that that’s one of the key mitigation strategies that’s keeping us in school,” Herron said. “That is where I sit right now, that we really, really need to keep everything in place for the safety of our students.”
Chairman Greg Dowell stated that he did not believe there was enough information for the Board to move on the recommendation of keeping the mask mandate in place and suggested that the Board meet again *Thursday (Jan. 20) at 12:15 p.m. for a closed session and 12:30 p.m. for an open session in order to facilitate further discussion. More information regarding this meeting can be found in this article from WYDaily.
While several community members spoke against the mask mandate in schools during the public comments portion, a number of speakers, including members of the WJCC staff, urged the board to uphold the mask mandates.
“I have never seen my fellow educators this stressed and unhappy. I’ve heard more and more teachers threatening to leave,” one WJCC teacher said. “With the mask mandate being removed potentially on January 24, I know myself and others will feel even more unsafe than we already do.”
Lindsey Taylor, vice president of the Williamsburg-James City Education Association (WJCEA) and a teacher at James River Elementary, told the Board that WJCEA conducted a survey about masks, and that 88 percent of responders were in support of keeping the mask mandate.
“The WJCEA suggest that we do what we can to keep the mask mandate,” Taylor said.
Taylor also urged Board members to visit the schools for a full day to see what teachers and administration are experiencing before they make a decision Friday.