Fairfax County school, health officials back universal masking in town hall

Irving Middle School students wear face masks in class (via FCPS)

Updated at 11:50 a.m. — The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 this morning to support the continued mask requirement in schools and approved a letter directing Virginia to work with local health and school officials on metrics for making masks optional.

Earlier: When students across Fairfax County returned to classrooms today (Tuesday), they came wearing the most contentious, must-have accessory of the school year: face masks.

While the devices have become the subject of fierce political debate, Fairfax County Public Schools officials say that tension has not carried over into school buildings, where they have encountered few issues with getting students and staff to wear masks.

Just 40 out of the division’s nearly 180,000 students have been cited for not wearing a mask since the requirement took effect on Aug. 20, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Special Services Michelle Boyd said at a virtual town hall meeting last night (Monday).

“Certainly, students have had to be reminded to pull your face mask up and potentially to wear it appropriately, as we all have to have reminders,” Boyd said. “But by and large, we want to celebrate that FCPS students have stepped up and answered the call to keep themselves safe, to keep their friends safe, and to keep their community safe.”

Officials say the mask-wearing requirement, combined with vaccinations, testing, and other mitigation protocols, has proven effective so far at limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Fairfax County Public Schools says nearly all students have complied with its face mask requirement (via FCPS/Facebook)

As of today, FCPS students, staff, and visitors have reported 6,362 Covid cases since August, including 2,681 cases this month — double the 1,317 cases seen in December.

Boyd noted that the number of cases still represents just a fraction of the district’s 206,111 students and staff, and while there have been 36 outbreaks reported, consisting of 155 cases, there have not been any since students returned from winter break on Jan. 10.

Unlike some other school systems in the area, FCPS has not reverted any schools to virtual learning due to Covid.

Still, with the school system seeing more cases than ever and community transmission levels high, albeit declining, Superintendent Scott Brabrand says FCPS needs to “stay the course” and maintain its current health and safety practices.

“We all seek a moment when we can go to creating mask-optional conditions, but now is not the time at the greatest surge we’ve ever had in the pandemic,” Brabrand said, stating later that FCPS is working with health officials to establish metrics for when to roll back masking and other requirements.

Whether FCPS will be allowed to continue with universal masking, however, is up to the courts after the county school board joined six other localities in filing a lawsuit yesterday to prevent Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order directing schools to make masks optional from taking effect.

The complaint argues that the governor lacks the authority to issue and enforce the executive order, which it says violates the state Constitution and the state law adopted last year that requires schools to provide in-person instruction in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mitigation strategies.

“We’re not here out of a desire, but rather, out of a need to ensure that we’ve got that separation of powers and we maintain our constitutional authority as locally elected school board members who answer and are ultimately accountable to our constituents,” Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky told FFXnow in an interview.

She declined to speculate on what would happen if the Arlington Circuit Court, where the lawsuit was filed, rules in favor of Youngkin but said the school board is confident it will prevail in the case.

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said the governor’s office is “disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents’ rights.”

“The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education, and care, as the legal process plays out,” she said in a statement.

Virginia’s health and education departments released new guidelines on Friday (Jan. 21) to support Youngkin’s executive order, urging testing and vaccinations while suggesting mask-wearing should be a personal choice.

“There is presently a lack of consensus among health experts regarding the costs and benefits of mask-wearing for children in school,” the guidance says, stating that the N95 and KN95 masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are “very tight and uncomfortable.”

However, local health officials disputed the assertion that there’s a lack of consensus on the benefits of masks in preventing COVID-19 transmission at last night’s town hall, noting that universal masking is still recommended by the CDC and the Fairfax County Health Department.

“The FCHD continues to highlight the benefits of masking and encourages masks as an important part of an overall layered prevention strategy,” the county health department said by email. “We are aware of the updated VDH guidance issued this weekend and are in the process of ensuring that our COVID 19 investigations and containment practices are aligned.”

Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, the county’s director of epidemiology and population health, and Dr. Russell Libby, a local pediatrician who founded the Virginia Pediatric Group, agreed that “the vast majority of evidence” suggests masks work and are most effective when worn by everyone.

“There are many variabilities relative to the materials, the fashion with which they are fitted, and the cooperation on a continuing basis in those settings,” Libby said. “…There’s a lot that’s evolving, but the best advice that can be given is that still masks are the way to go, that they help significantly reduce the likelihood of transmission.”

Community members shared a variety of perspectives on FCPS’ mask requirement, with some parents expressing frustration with the lack of choice and others thanking school officials for following federal and local health guidelines.

Brabrand described the mask mandate as part of a balancing act between individual rights and collective responsibility and sacrifice.

“I have the right to do things up until that right infringes on the rights of others,” he said. “The pandemic is really just a primary example of how my decision not to wear a mask or not to get vaccinated has a huge effect on others. I think that’s why it remains an issue that creates so much comment and commentary.”

Photo via FCPS