Less than 72 hours after the Culpeper County School Board voted 4-3 to make masks optional for students and staff, the Commonwealth of Virginia made the point moot earlier this month.
A State Health Commissioner Order of Public Health Emergency was issued Thursday, Aug. 12, that requires all students, staff and visitors to wear masks while indoors at K-12 school settings.
Culpeper County Public Schools (CCPS) said it is required by law to follow all federal and state health orders. Based on that order, CCPS will require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks while indoors on school property. The policy went into effect Friday, Aug. 13.
The order supersedes School Board Policy and will remain in effect until the CDC guidelines for K-12 schools change, or the order is amended or rescinded.
Culpeper County School Board Chairman Marshall Keene, who voted to make masks optional at the Aug. 9 School Board meeting, is encouraging parents to still fight the mask mandate. He shared this message on his Facebook page Monday, Aug. 16: “Getting messages from teachers questioning the religious exemption option. Good response below, not that anyone owes anyone an explanation.
“The Religious Statute of Va simply states your thought/conscience is your Religion. It has nothing to do with your doctrinal beliefs. Along those lines if your conscience tell you that wearing a mask is dangerous, then that thought is your Religion. If your conscience tells you your child may die or become very ill from wearing a mask, then that thought is now 'your religion.’ Religious Exemptions for mask wearing can be used for any reason we choose. It is an inalienable right and protected. James Madison is the one to thank for this,” his post continued.
"Please note that in Virginia you do NOT need an organized religion to claim a religious exemption. Your conscience is enough to dictate a religious objection to a medical procedure. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom protects this right. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is a statement about both freedom of conscience and the principle of separation of church and state,” Keene’s post also stated.
At the Aug. 9 School Board meeting, approximately three-dozen public speakers addressed the mask mandate, as well as transgender and “critical race theory” — the latter two the board didn’t take up.
Keene and members Crissy Burnett, Deborah Desilets and Betsy Smith voted for the mask-optional policy, while Vice Chairman Anne Luckinbill and members Pat Baker and Barbee Brown voted against it.
“I am not going to support this plan as presented,” Luckinbill stated. “The General Assembly has made the CDC guidelines a mandate. If we don’t follow those to the extent we can, we are not following something that has the force of law. I cannot go against something that carries the force of law. If you know me, you know I don’t want to put kids in masks. I don’t, I don’t like them for all the reasons you said, but we are being told what to do.”
“I do not want to enforce a mask mandate,” Desilets said. “I think we need to listen to our parents, they’re the reason we are on the board. I looked at all the stuff from the governor, he changed his mind — it’s a mandate, it’s not a mandate. The governor did not mandate; if he wants to mandate, he needs to come out and mandate them. He has not. He is playing politics, trying to skirt it and get his way without absolutely taking responsibility.
“If it’s an emergency mandate form the governor, we have to follow that, but I’m not planning to go backwards now. Our county has some so far forward. We were in-person last year when most counties didn’t even have in-person last year.”
Gov. Ralph Northam announced a public health emergency order that Thursday to require universal masking in all Virginia K-12 schools.
“It would be great to say everyone can choose what they want to do, but that’s not the world we’re sitting in right now,” Brown said. “We’ve been advised the mask mandate, not following it, would be a violation of law or it’s a legal requirement. I can’t imagine how much has been spent on legal fees already and the school system really doesn’t have a bunch of money to be spending on legal fees, so I will not be supporting violating a state mandate.”
Keene, however, said: “Let’s say we do it and we have an issue with litigation. What does litigation mean, that means they’re going to take it before a judge and a judge is going to tell us you’re going to do it or you’re not it. I get when people say you’re going to get sued that scares everybody. I get it, but at some point, we need to stand up for these people in the audience and the majority of Culpeper County and what they want. We are a representation of them, and not a representation of ourselves.”
Brown, who attended the meeting remotely, said: “It would be great to say everyone can choose what they want to do, but that’s not the world we’re sitting in right now. We’ve been advised the mask mandate, not following it, would be a violation of law or it’s a legal requirement. I can’t imagine how much has been spent on legal fees already and the school system really doesn’t have a bunch of money to be spending on legal fees, so I will not be supporting violating a state mandate.”
Baker added: “I know maybe 50 people spoke tonight, and I’ll give you each five children, that’s 250 children. We have 8,000, so in all good conscience, I really need to consider 8,000 children, not just 250 — although I love everybody. I certainly don’t want any child to be upset, anxious, sick for any other reason because of a mask. If it’s that traumatic for any child, please see your pediatrician or a health professional and have them say medically your child cannot wear this; it’s such a determent to their lifestyle that they can’t.”