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UPDATED: After contentious hearing, Culpeper School Board sticks by optional-masks policy

At a public meeting Monday night, dozens of Culpeper County residents spoke out on the hot-button issues of face masks, Critical Race Theory and transgender students.

After hearing them for more than two hours, the School Board voted 4-3 to reaffirm its June position that it is up to parents whether their child wears a face covering in a school building.

Vice Chair Anne Luckinbill and members Pat Baker and Barbee Brown opposed the decision. School Board Chair Marshall Keene and members Crissy Burnett, Deborah Desilets and Betsy Smith voted for the mask-optional policy, which is part of the school division’s updated Mitigation Plan to slow the spread of COVID-19 when classes resume later this month.

The board acted late in the evening after 38 people spoke in a packed Board of Supervisors chamber at the County Administration Building on Main Street, with a sheriff’s deputy present in case he was needed. Beyond the boardroom, about 15 residents stood and sat in the building’s lobby, waiting for a chance to testify. Another 50-plus people waited their turn outside the building, in the warm summer twilight. Three people sent written comments to the board.

A clear majority of speakers, some wearing navy-blue “Mask Choice #parentschoice” T-shirts, favored the policy that the School Board adopted June 28 to make masks optional.

Several Culpeper teachers wearing red Culpeper County Education Association T-shirts, a Culpeper Medical Center nurse and NAACP leaders urged requiring masks to protect younger children, their family members and the community from the coronavirus’ new Delta variant, which has swept the nation.

Jack Frazier, Culpeper County’s Cedar Mountain District supervisor, was among those who addressed the board.

“These kids have gone through some difficult times in the past 18 months,” Frazier said.

Speaking for himself and his family, he said masking should be a personal decision.

“It should be left up to individual parents as to who needs to wear a mask,” Frazier said.

Several speakers said face masks don’t protect people against the novel coronavirus, contending that they don’t filter out virus particles.

Health authorities say masks, along with social distancing, are the second-best preventative measure against COVID-19, after vaccinations.

Wearing a mask that said “Love Wins,” Culpeper resident Kirsten Heffron urged the board to heed the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Virginia Department of Education and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which all call for masking young children.

“Right now, young kids haven’t been able to get the vaccine,” Heffron said. “I feel small children deserve the protection of face masks, for just a little while longer. We should be following the CDC recommendations, at least.”

Last month, the CDC changed its guidance to recommend all children older than 2 wear a mask when they return to school, regardless of vaccination status.

Coronavirus cases in the United States have risen 40 percent in the past week. Covid-related hospitalizations rose 36 percent in that period. COVID-19 cases among children are on the rise, and the school year is due to begin in many communities across the country.

Culpeper parent Alicia Duncan, a leader of the anti-mask movement, was first to speak Monday night. Accompanied by her husband, who held photo enlargements of their son and daughter, she said their children have been healthy and flourished without masks on Kings Dominion visits, in summer camp, youth baseball and Vacation Bible School.

Their son, whose behavior had grown aggressive and unrecognizable during the state’s stricter COVID-19 measures, improved this spring when restrictions eased and he returned to group activities, Duncan said.

She urged the board to leave it up to parents as to whether their children should wear face mask in the classroom.

On a separate topic, Duncan advised the School Board to refuse to accept the Virginia Department of Education’s equity curriculum supporting transgender students.

She also urged the board to oppose Critical Race Theory, a college-level concept taught in law schools, but not in secondary schools.

Nationally, most teachers neither use the term with students nor ask them to read the work of legal scholars using that framework. The theory holds that racism in the United States is systemic.

Politically, Critical Race Theory has become a flashpoint. At least five Republican-led state legislatures have passed bans on it.

In June, a Loudoun County School Board meeting turned ugly, with one man arrested, after several speakers objected to the district’s policies on transgender rights and racial equity. Some people equated the latter with Critical Race Theory.

“Do not allow racism to be seen where it does not exist,” Duncan told the Culpeper School Board.

The Rev. Uzziah Harris, president of the NAACP’s Culpeper Branch, noted that he has been an educator for 15 years, and has two children in Culpeper County Public Schools.

He said he supports equity education, which he said is far different than the Critical Race Theory fought by conservatives.

Asking educators to teach social studies or American history without touching on racial issues would be like talking about World War II’s Holocaust without speaking of genocide or the Nazis’ belief in Aryanism, Harris said.

“The reason we can say ‘Never Again’ is because the world is committed to telling the whole truth,” he said.

History must be taught in its entirety, even its difficult parts, if children are to grow more tolerant and accepting of those who differ from them, Harris said.

Laurel Blackmon, a former School Board candidate, said critics have mislabeled equity education as Critical Race Theory.

“Equity education supports ALL children. It is just good teaching,” Blackmon said. “Equity education creates communities of learners who are critical thinkers, who are highly engaged in school, and who are invested in the success of their communities.”

Culpeper schools’ updated Mitigation Plan calls for masks in schools to be optional, but gives the superintendent some leeway to require them if COVID-19 cases grow more widespread.

Next door to Culpeper, the Orange County School Board voted Monday to reverse its recent decision to make masks optional in the classroom this academic year. It required Orange students and educators to wear masks again, with coronavirus case transmission now high in the community.

Other school systems are also issuing mask mandates regardless of people’s vaccination status.

In the Washington metropolitan area, Fairfax and Arlington counties, along with the District of Columbia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland will require masks in their schools. Fairfax County is the largest school system in Virginia.

Richmond and Hopewell’s school districts recently decided masks will be required in classrooms for teachers and staff, regardless of their vaccination status.

In a related move Monday night, the School Board added a remote-learning option for K-12 students who don’t wish to return to face-to-face instruction. The deadline to apply for it is Aug 16, 2021.

To learn more about the new, Edgenuity option or to apply, vist the school division’s Remote Learning site. The URL is sites.google.com/ccpsweb.org/ccps-remote-learning/home.

Culpeper Media Network televised the School Board meeting live on its website and cable-TV channel. To watch, click here.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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