UPDATE Thursday, Sept. 2: The school board met Wednesday evening (after press time), voting unanimously to do so under Virginia Code 2.2-3711(A)(1) and (A)(8). During the two and a half hour closed session, they consulted with two attorneys. They reconvened in open session and no closed meeting actions were taken. The board will hold its regular meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 8.
The Greene County School Board has called a special meeting for Wednesday, Sept. 1, to discuss personnel and legal issues with its attorney in closed session. This will be the board’s third meeting in a month, with a fourth scheduled for next Wednesday, Sept. 8.
When the school board met for its regular August meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 4, the vote on whether to make face masks mandatory for all students and staff at the opening of school prompted a heated debate among both the board and those who signed up to speak during public comment. After hearing from 13 individuals, the board voted 3-2 in favor of keeping masks “optional but encouraged” for all members of the school community, regardless of vaccination status. Board Chair Leah Paladino (Midway) and Sharon Mack (Ruckersville) voted against the measure.
The next day, a public town hall by the Blue Ridge Health District discussed the localized uptick in COVID cases, the appearance of the Delta variant and the guidance regarding masking in schools. Also that same day, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam insinuated in a press briefing that school districts who chose to go against the CDC’s recommendations regarding COVID-19 mitigation strategies could be putting their staff at legal risk for any new cases of the virus in schools.
“Local school divisions are taking the lead, including mask wearing and mitigation measures in their schools,” Northam said in his briefing. “We expect them to follow the law, and the law that was passed earlier this year says that schools will do two things this fall: they will offer in-person instruction five days a week, and then will follow CDC mitigation strategies. The CDC guidance is that people in schools need to be wearing masks. That law was passed by a strong bipartisan vote of the legislature, and I expect school divisions to follow it. If they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel.”
After this statement, the school board convened a special meeting on Monday, Aug. 9, to discuss the issue once more ahead of the first day of school that week.
The Aug. 9 meeting, as publicly announced, was intended to be a brief discussion and vote on whether the previous decision went against the governor’s statements regarding adherence to Senate Bill 1303. There was no public comment on the agenda, yet roughly 65 parents and community members—more than showed up for the Aug. 4 meeting—arrived with the intention to make their opinions known.
During the meeting, attendees repeatedly interrupted the board members, yelling over their statements and interrupting attempts to take a vote on the issue at hand.
“I would like to move that each school board member takes an oath to follow the law,” Mack stated. “This school board reaffirms its commitment and directive to division employees to follow the laws governing the operation of the schools, including the requirement to provide in-person instruction to all students according to the conditions and requirements of Senate Bill 1303.”
The chair seconded the motion and opened the floor to board member comments before a roll call vote.
“The first thing I’d like to say is that the comments that were given to you tonight are not the comments of the board in its entirety,” said Todd Sansom (Vice Chair, Monroe). “We had not seen them, we had not heard them and I was not aware of them before I stepped in this room tonight—and I was given a different picture of what they would look like. … I would also like to present the motion that we amend the agenda tonight to have public comment.”
According to Robert’s Rules of Order, a manual of parliamentary procedure from 1876 which all public governing bodies generally follow, there cannot be two open motions on the floor at one time, so the vote on the first motion had to be resolved before any new motions could be made.
Over many more interruptions, the board voted 3-2 in favor of Mack’s motion to uphold Senate Bill 1303 as it pertains to COVID-19 mitigation strategies, overturning the Aug. 4 decision in light of the governor’s guidance. Sansom and Jason Tooley (Member, At-Large) voted against the motion.
At this point, members of the public began loudly yelling over the board asking for clarification of whether this vote meant that masks would again be mandatory and expressing disapproval for the lack of opportunity for public comment ahead of the vote.
With the room rapidly erupting into chaos, Paladino asked if there was another motion to be made. Tooley reiterated his earlier support of Sansom’s motion to add public comment, but the audience drowned out any attempt to second the motion and it died on the floor. Paladino stood up, announced that the meeting was adjourned with a bang of the gavel, and gathered her belongings to leave the room.
After several more minutes of chaos, Sansom, as Vice-Chair, attempted once more to bring order to the room by taking control of the meeting in the chair’s absence. He reintroduced the motion for public comment and 11 members of the public spoke on the topic of masks; five of these speakers were the same who spoke at the meeting the week before. After much more debate, Tooley made a motion to reaffirm the previous week’s vote making mask-wearing optional, and the board voted 2-1 (Mack voting against and Collier abstaining on the grounds that he was unsure of the legality of the process).
Virginia code 2.2-3707 covers the requirements of public bodies when it comes to holding meetings. According to state law, it is possible that the part of the Aug. 9 meeting that took place after the chair’s departure was not a legal meeting, which calls into question the validity of any action taken during that time—including the vote.
With ongoing uncertainty over what the first day of school meant for students and staff, on Tuesday Aug. 10, Superintendent Dr. Andrea Whitmarsh sent out a statement to all GCPS families clarifying that masks would indeed be mandatory in schools in accordance with CDC guidance.
On Wednesday, Aug. 12 (after the start of school for Greene County), Gov. Northam announced a Public Health Emergency Order requiring universal masking in indoor settings in the state’s K-12 schools, both public and private.
“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” said Northam in a press release. “That’s why the General Assembly passed this law with overwhelming bipartisan support. This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply. I’m grateful to the work of the General Assembly and the Health Department, and I look forward to a safe start to the school year.”
While the board has called a closed meeting, they must vote to go into closed session while in public and must return to the public to certify that only public business as described in the motion was discussed in closed session. The board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m. at William Monroe High School.