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GOP targets mask mandates in schools

CHARLESTON — Even as the omicron COVID-19 variant sends hospitalizations back towards summer record highs, Republican lawmakers in the West Virginia House of Delegates want to end mask and testing mandates in public schools.

The House Education Committee took up House Bill 4071 on Wednesday afternoon, called the Public School Health Rights Act, adopting it in a 18-6 vote. The bill now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.

HB 4071 would prohibit schools, educational institutions, and elected or appointed officials from imposing mask mandates for COVID-19 on students or school employees. The bill prohibits mandatory COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic students and staff. The bill also prohibits quarantines or isolation of students and staff unless they have a confirmed positive COVID-19 test.

The bill doesn’t prohibit parents from sending their students to school masked, not does it prohibit anyone from wearing a mask. But it does allow for students and parents to bring legal action against schools that violate the provisions of the bill.

“As the lead sponsor of this bill, as a father for four, as a relative of instructors, administrators, and school personnel, I’ve heard overwhelmingly from my district and overwhelmingly from all interested parties,” said Del. Jordan Maynor, R-Raleigh. “I think it’s time to empower parents, to empower individuals to start making these decisions.”

Democratic committee members tried to offer two amendments to the bill to exempt its provisions during an active state of emergency and to give county residents an option of a special election to override mask mandates and other requirements to slow virus spread. Both amendments failed along party lines.

“I think this bill goes way too far,” said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson. “This bill, I think, takes too many decisions that ought to be made particularly by public health officials away from those officials and I think that is a danger not only to the structure of our society, but a danger to our physical health.”

“I’m a little concerned,” said Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, a high school teacher. “You want to talk about freedom and letting parents decide if their children have to wear masks but what about the freedom of me to send my child to school to be in a safe environment where they might not catch COVID if school is using proper protocols of masking? If the spread isn’t that bad, counties eliminate their mask mandates.”

Del. Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, said that parents concerned about the elimination of mask mandates, testing, and stricter quarantine rules have other options available to them.

“We have homebound instruction. We have West Virginia virtual school. We have home school options. The parents could elect to send the child to a private school or a charter school if we ever get one up and running eventually,” Tully said. “So, there are other options to pursue education outside of the public school system if a parent would be so upset about the lack of a mask mandate or quarantine guidelines.”

According to the Department of Education, 35 counties require face masks in schools. Another 12 schools base their masking decisions on the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System color-coded map that measures infection rates and percent of positivity in each county. Another seven counties have other criteria for deciding to mask students and staff, while Pocahontas County makes masking optional.

As of Wednesday, 35 counties were red for the highest rates of COVID-19, with 11 counties listed as orange – the second worst category – followed by seven counties listed as gold. Only Jackson County was yellow and Tucker County was green.

At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Department of Education and state Board of Education officials released a school recovery and guidance plan with no statewide mandate for face masks in classrooms by students, teachers, and staff, leaving it up to individual counties to make decisions regarding mask mandates. Decisions on whether to stay open or go to remote learning during instances of high virus transmission are also left up to county superintendents and county health departments.

COVID-19 has more adverse effects on the health of older people and those with multiple comorbidities. But young adults, teenagers, and younger children can still get COVID-19. According to the Harvard Medical School, many children either show no symptoms or mild symptoms. Severe complications tend to happen less often. According to the Centers of Disease Control, only 862 children age 18 or younger have died from COVID to date.

According to the DHHR, only 46.8 percent of residents between the ages of 16-20 are fully vaccinated, 38.6 percent of children between the ages of 12-15 are fully vaccinated, and 11.36 percent of children between the ages of 5-11 are fully vaccinated.

While boosters are available for those older than age 18, only children between the ages of 12-17 can get a Pfizer COVID-19 booster. The only data available in the state for booster doses are for children and young adults between the ages of 16-20. Of those, only 6.6 percent have received a booster shot. According to hospitalization data, there were 15 pediatric confirmed cases, with one case in an intensive care unit bed.

In an update last week, the CDC said cloth masks over the least protection against COVID-19, recommending the public obtain N95 and KN95 respirators. President Joe Biden announced this week that his administration will distribute 400 million free N95 masks to pharmacies and community health centers in the coming days.

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