Cashwell: Henrico schools’ mask rules are not a political position

Henrico Superintendent Amy Cashwell on Saturday morning spoke publicly for the first time about Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order ending the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools. It’s an order school system officials announced last week that won’t override the school system’s existing policy requiring masks for everyone in its buildings.

“I want to be very clear, this is in no way about Henrico County schools personally pushing back against the governor or taking any political stance,” Cashwell said, addressing Henrico’s board of supervisors during of his one-day retreat. “We are working to ensure that we maintain our health and safety plans and that we do so in accordance with the law and health experts.

Cashwell cited existing state law (from Senate Bill 1303, passed last year), which requires schools to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These guidelines include universal masking in K-12 schools.

Lawmakers continue to argue over the intent of the law.

Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) originally introduced it as a one-sentence bill, mandating a return to in-person teaching.

House Democrats, including Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), added language to the bill that requires schools to follow CDC mitigation strategies “where possible.” It passed last year with a strong bipartisan vote.

HCPS spokesperson Eileen Cox said if students refuse to wear masks on Monday or beyond, school officials will do what they have been doing all year – work with individual families to see what alternatives are available.

Based on guidelines from the school administration obtained by the Citizena mitigation strategy is to have unmasked students sit behind plexiglass if they cannot always be 6 feet or more apart.

If a parent’s concern cannot be collaboratively resolved through other means, it may be necessary for a student to learn asynchronously outside of the school building, according to Cox.

“Once again, we hope and hope that students and families will continue to adhere to the current HCPS masking requirements, as they have successfully done all school year,” Cox said. “School administrators will assist and support teachers in dealing with situations where a student may refuse to wear a mask.”

Youngkin’s executive order states that parents can choose not to have their children subject to any mask mandates in place at the child’s school. No parent who chooses to remove their child from a school mask mandate will not be required to provide a reason or make a certification regarding their child’s health or education, according to the order.

But on Friday night, Youngkin said in a statement that he encourages the families to follow the advice of their directors until the case is settled legally.

A parent group filed a trial tuesday against Youngkin in the Supreme Court of Virginia. The lawsuit claims the executive order is unconstitutional, in part because it conflicts with state law.

Attorney General Jason Miyares filed a motion late Thursday to dismiss the lawsuit.

SB1303 stoked conflict in August when the CDC changed its recommendations to urge universal masking in K-12 schools. Then-Governor Ralph Northam implicit that school divisions that did not follow the CDC’s mitigation strategies would be breaking state law.

Confusion has arisen over the intent and scope of the law. The controversy was put on the backburner when- State Health Commissioner Mr Norman Oliver has been released a health prescription requiring masks to be worn in all public and private schools from K-12 by all ages 2 and up.

Now, that order will be terminated on Monday when Northam’s executive order takes effect.

The matter is expected to be decided soon by the Virginia Supreme Court.

The Henrico Education Association, along with the Richmond and Chesterfield teachers’ unions, are encouraging teachers to wear black on Monday in support of efforts to maintain safety protocols.

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Anna Bryson is Henrico Citizen’s educational reporter and Report for America staff member. Make a tax deductible donation to support his work, and RFA will match it dollar for dollar.

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