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Virginia Beach school board votes against making masks optional following heated hourslong meeting

By Elizabeth Stuart, Mallory Simon and Christina Maxouris, CNN

The Virginia Beach school board voted against a motion which would make mask-wearing in school optional for the upcoming school year, during a heated Tuesday night meeting that lasted more than four hours.

The board voted 6-4 against the effort, keeping masks mandatory for the district’s 63,000 students and more than 4,000 teachers in September. But that can still change before school reopens.

Parents and community members lined up to speak out against the policy.

“You’re all hypocrites,” said Annie Palumbo, who was among the evening’s first speakers. “I’m here fighting with hundreds of other parents because we don’t want our kids masked for seven hours a day. And I look around and I see all of you sitting here without masks. Seriously, what’s the deal?”

One board member did wear a mask.

A state health order that’s in effect until July 25 requires all people 5 years old and older to wear masks when indoors at public and private K-12 schools.

But Virginia health and education officials announced Wednesday — a day after the Virginia Beach school board meeting — that the state health order will not be extended. Instead, their guidance said school districts will now be able to implement local mask policies based on their community’s Covid-19 conditions.

The guidance “strongly recommends” that elementary schools put an indoor mask requirement in place for students, teachers and staff regardless of vaccination status, until children under 12 are able to get vaccinated. The guidance said that “at a minimum” middle and high schools should require masks indoors for students, teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated.

During Tuesday’s meeting, some parents argued there should be no mask mandate because of the data around children being relatively safe from severe Covid-19 and the fact that masks are no longer required in most other indoor places in the state.

“Masks are optional almost everywhere that our children play, where they live, where their parents work, it’s optional. And yet, we’re still requiring them to be masked in our school buildings?” said mother Lori Sharp.

School board members said they’re following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Virginia’s health commissioner in their decisions.

The CDC recently updated its school guidance, saying everyone 2 and older who is not fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended this week universal masking in schools of everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status.

In a letter to families on Thursday, Virginia Beach City Public Schools said administration officials have reviewed the state’s latest guidance and are consulting with local and state health officials.

“We intend to bring a plan forward by August 10 to share with the School Board about the start of the next school year,” the letter said.

The issue of mask wearing can be considered again at the board’s next meeting on August 10.

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