Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Rooh Perry’s name.
By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
Speaking to a sharply divided and sometimes raucous crowd, Rockingham County Public Schools officials announced at the school board meeting Monday that students would have to wear masks inside schools this fall.
People taking positions on both sides of the issue brought signs and applauded those they agree with and, at times, booed parents who took the opposite stance. Some thanked Superintendent Oskar Scheikl and the board for the research they did before determining whether masks should be optional or required, while others said their constitutional and parental rights were being stripped because of the mandate.
“We don’t just have the freedom to do whatever we’d like,” Scheikl told the crowd. He said school officials must follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines “to the maximum extent applicable.”
The school board decided that returning to five day-per-week in-person learning was a priority for the upcoming school year, which begins Aug. 23. However, the schools couldn’t operate with everyone maintaining six feet of social distance and instead would maintain three feet between students — but with masks.
“There’s enormous benefits for having the kids back, and there’s no question about that,” Scheikl said. “There is an enormous benefit when you have a student who’s positive and a student who’s not infected for both to wear masks. It’s most important that the person who has the virus is masked, and then there’s an additional benefit for the other person to be masked.”
The issue stirred passions on both sides. Much of the front rows of the Spotswood High School auditorium were filled with people who supported the mask mandate, while those against it filled the back rows. About 30 people spoke up during the public comment portion, and again the comments were evenly split.
More than half of those in attendance didn’t wear masks. Others made a point of removing the mask when approaching the podium. Many in the front rows — those supportive of masks — left the meeting after they spoke.
But the comments, interruptions and reactions — from people on both sides — spilled beyond the public comment period. Both before and after, several audience members shouted questions at the board and expressed dissatisfaction with their answers.
During the public comment period that came after Scheikl had announced the decision about masks, Andrea Spitzer — a mother of children in the Rockingham County public school system and administrator of a Facebook group called “Parents of Rockingham County Public Schools” — called for the board to “unmask our children.”
“Our constitutional rights are being stomped on, and most of the parents are like I am and won’t let this happen to our children,” Spitzer said.
Mark Flanders, father of four children in the school system, said school officials were infringing upon his parental rights.
“As parents, we have a moral obligation and legal right to raise our kids as we see fit,” Flanders said. “We are the experts on our kids, and it is up to us as parents to instill morals and values in our children. It is not not your job or right to take any of those roles from us. I will not abdicate the right and responsibilities to the governor, or any politician, or to the school board, or to Dr. Scheikl. I will not comply with any mandate or policy that encroaches on parental rights.”
Scheikl told the crowd that requiring masks was a safety issue, and it wasn’t anyone’s first choice.
“Nobody in education would argue that having education henceforth forever in masks is as good as education without masks,” he said. “It’s never all or nothing. These are difficult conversations, and when we talk to experts, it is about which part outweighs the other, if we’re just talking about the science.”
And while masks must be worn by everyone in schools for now, he said both the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC have said they could eventually be optional depending on the virus transmission trends. However, because children under 12 haven’t been vaccinated, and the number of those in high school who have been vaccinated is about 36% in the county, he said it’s just not an option yet.
“We don’t define the quarantine rules. We don’t initiate it, but the VDH will,” Scheikl said. “If numbers were down, then maybe, but they’re not.”
He said 200 students had to be quarantined earlier this year from April 12-May 10 after an exposure when the three-foot distancing rule was put in place, but not one of them tested positive.
“That’s good information,” Scheikl said.
More debate over transgender students
Many of the people who spoke during the public comment period also weigned in on allowing transgender students to use the restroom and locker room of the gender with which they identify. The school board didn’t take any official action on the issue Monday.
But like the mask mandate, this issue prompted passionate arguments from both sides. Speakers were continually interrupted, applauded and booed by fellow audience members, and board member Renee Reed had to pause the discussion several times due to the constant disarray.
Several of those in favors of transgender inclusivity spoke about how the issue was one of suicide prevention and that having support systems in place can drastically reduce someone’s chances of attempting to take their own life for not feeling represented.
One graduate of Broadway High School who has identified as nonbinary publicly for more than a year shared that they and many of their friends in the LGBTQ+ community experienced continual denial of services by staff and administration.
“Growing up in this county, these schools made it really hard to accept who I am,” they said. “Supporting trans and queer youth is suicide prevention, and it just requires you to put a little time into your research. Learn about puberty blockers, gender dysphoria, read about HRT and ask a queer community member directly.”
The nonprofit Trevor Project conducted a survey last year that found 40% of LGBT teens have seriously considered suicide in the past year, and that number is cut in half if their identities are respected by all of their support systems.
Rooh Perry, a trans student at Spotswood High School, said that they have been “lucky to be surrounded by support within my close circle.”
“But the fact that the school board even has to have this conversation on whether to treat trans people with the most basic respect and allow them to use the bathroom that makes them feel the most safe and comfortable shows that we are far from acceptance within our community,” Carrie said. “There are children and teens that think of school as an escape from an unsupportive home life, making support from other adults in their life including teachers, principles, etc that much more important.”
Others, however, said said they believed a person cannot change the gender to which they were assigned at birth.
And some parents said they were concerned about their children if the policy is changed.
Amanda Hughes, a mother of a child in the RCPS system, said “what a student who is not my child chooses to think about themselves when it comes to gender is none of my business.”
“It is my business when the behavior of that student could affect the safety of other students in the school system,” Hughes said. “I’m specifically talking about the possibility that students with biologically male body parts could be seen in restrooms and locker rooms, as this provides a safety concern for the general student population.”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.