When Leadership Fails

 VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY-TV)  Jan 20, 2022 / 09:53 PM EST – Virginia beach school officials have decided to retain their universal mask requirement, but will also give families the option to “opt out” of the requirement. 

The inconsistency in the sentence above is in line with recent decisions made by the leadership of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS). In case you didn’t notice the paradox, “universal” means “applicable to all” and “requirement” is defined as “a thing that is compulsory.” A universal requirement is not something people can just opt out of.  

On Thursday, January 20, 2022, the Virginia Beach school board flip-flopped on their decision from the previous month and voted 9-2 to make masks optional for students in all elementary, middle, and high schools. At the December 20 board meeting, one board member said that removing the mask mandate while there is “a new and very contagious variant seems foolish and shortsighted to me.” Most of the board agreed and the resolution to do away with the mask mandate was defeated by a vote of 8-3 (Hammond, 2021).  

The board’s caution was vindicated as the number of new COVID-19 cases in Virginia Beach climbed from 127 on December 20 to 1,742 on January 8, five days after students and teachers returned to school buildings following winter break. By January 20, the Omicron surge had not yet subsided. The 7-day average of new COVID cases in VA Beach ranged from 979 to 1,192 during the period of January 9-20 (Virginia Department of Health, 2022). 

Consequently, the school board’s vote on January 20 came as a shock to many. But the biggest surprise was the fact that the recommendation to make masks optional came from the superintendent and top brass of VBCPS. Their “administrative recommendation” was carefully worded in a presumed attempt to make it more palatable; however, it is as self-contradictory as the sentence at the top of this post: Continue to adhere to SB 1303 and have universal masking in schools as part of our layered prevention strategy, while also acknowledging EO#2, which allows parents to opt out of this requirement” (VBCPS, 2022).

For readers not familiar with Virginia politics, SB 1303 is a bipartisan law that was enacted ten months ago by the General Assembly of Virginia. A relevant excerpt from SB 1303 appears in the next section. EO#2 stands for Executive Order Number Two, enacted by new governor Glenn Youngkin five days before the VA Beach board meeting. The gist of EO#2 is this: “parents should have the ability to decide whether their child should wear masks for the duration of the school day” (Youngkin, 2022). 

Oh, the Hypocrisy 

The “universal masking” requirement alluded to in the VBCPS administrative recommendation states, “For the safety of students, staff and the community at large and in accordance with Virginia law we will continue to follow the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Virginia Department of Health” (VBCPS, 2021).  

For the record, the following excerpts are from Virginia law and recommendations from the CDC, the AAP, and the Virginia Department Health (VDH). Italics have been added for emphasis. 

  • VA law (SB 1303) – “each school board shall (i) adopt, implement, and, when appropriate, update specific parameters for the provision of in-person instruction and (ii) provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” 
  • CDC – “ CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 years and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” 
  • AAP – “All students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use), regardless of vaccination status.” 
  • VDH“Important! Everyone age 2 and up should wear a mask in indoor public spaces. Virginia communities currently have high levels of COVID-19 transmission.” 

We may never know why the central office leaders and six Virginia Beach school board members changed course and decided to ignore Virginia law and information from the CDC, AAP, and VDH. We do know that the decision had a demoralizing effect on many teachers and other VBCPS staff, who felt betrayed by their leadership.

A few school boards in southeastern Virginia also voted to eliminate mask requirements for students, while others kept their mask mandates for the time being (Reese & Patterson, 2022). On January 23, 2022, the superintendent of Surry County Public Schools demonstrated strong leadership by releasing a statement that contained the following paragraph: 

After careful consideration of a variety of factors, the Surry County Public Schools administration, headed by me, decided to prioritize the health and wellbeing of students, staff and visitors by continuing our health mitigation strategy of universal masking for all. Please know that this was a difficult decision to make, but we feel it is the right one at this time given the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Surry County and in our schools (Sims,2022).

The 2021-22 school year has inarguably been the toughest year ever for American teachers. For a partial list of reasons why, see this post at boredteachers.com. (And don’t be deceived by the site’s name; teachers who remain on the job today are anything but bored.)

Let’s not forget that this has also been a very difficult year for the people who have chosen to lead our school districts. Leadership is perhaps the main factor that will determine how well districts will survive COVID-19. The decisions – or lack of decisions – of its leaders will chart a district’s course for the remainder of the pandemic. Some districts are certain to emerge as robust organizations and continue to offer a high level of education, staffed by committed and qualified teachers. Others will become a shell of their former selves. Weak leadership, which fails to support the health and well-being of educators, dooms districts to the latter fate. 

Author’s Note: Although I am sure this post will offend some readers, my intent in writing the piece was to state facts and anticipate consequences. I invite everyone to share their thoughts in the “Leave A Comment” text box below. Edjacent and I ask commenters to be civil in both content and tone, leave partisan politics out of the discussion, and not try to explain why masks do or don’t work. My next blog post will address the effectiveness of masks in preventing the transmission of COVID-19. At that time, readers can weigh in on the mask issue. Thanks in advance for your cooperation.

1 thought on “When Leadership Fails”

  1. After reading an early draft of this, I had a conversation with my own children about how to navigate problematic masking situations they might encounter. It helped me realize how many misconceptions they have about “right” and “wrong”. We talked about this change of policy and how it might affect their days, as well as the debate they might hear. It offered an awesome opportunity for us to discuss the gray areas as a family.

    I have young, responsible, kind sons who are vaccinated and do not have high-risk family members in the household. Personally, selfishly, mask mandates are not my hill to fight on. So why IS this debate important to me? I think it is because it is not just physical safety that concerns me as a mom and educator, but also psychological safety. What would make me feel safer sending my kids to school each day? Transparency. I need to see more WHY, not just WHAT. I also want to see more HOW – how to do we thoughtfully consider stakeholder voices to mitigate the kind of polarization these kinds of decisions can ignite? I know my local school system as well as others do engage discussion in a variety of ways – let’s share those opportunities loudly and proudly and let’s model them in our own spaces as well, like this one.

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