'So broken down': Teachers, students and families caught in the middle of Youngkin's mask order

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In Virginia Beach, a mother is sending frantic emails to her school board, begging them to reverse their mask-optional policy to protect the life of her 14-year-old daughter who has a heart condition. In Arlington, a teenage girl broke down sobbing this week as she asked her parents for help navigating the suddenly thorny social dynamics between masked and unmasked friends - leading her mother to pull her from school for a mental health day.

And in Chesapeake, Va., on Tuesday, the first day her school district stopped requiring masks in accordance with Gov. Glenn Youngkin's mask-optional executive order, ninth-grade English teacher Amanda Lambert awoke unsure if she would go to work. Lambert was thinking about what her doctor told her: that, because of her blood-clotting disorder, she was unlikely to live through "the next round" of coronavirus variants if she contracted the illness and had to go on a ventilator. "Being intubated," she thought to herself, "is signing your own death certificate."

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Above all were thoughts of her son in sixth grade, and how badly she wants to see him graduate, get a job, get married.

"When I was in the Navy, I signed on the dotted line to put my life at risk and I understood that," Lambert, 41, said. "This is different."

All across Virginia, similar scenes of fear, division and chaos played out this week, as teachers reentered classrooms where children were suddenly allowed to appear maskless. The change in rules is due to Youngkin's controversial executive order, issued on his first day in office but which took effect Monday, asserting that parents have the right to decide whether their children wear face coverings in school.

A Washington Post analysis found that, as of Friday, more than half of Virginia districts had opted to ignore the governor's order - which is already the subject of two lawsuits, one from parents and one from school boards - and keep requiring masks. But in the 59 districts that did adopt mask-optional rules, teachers, parents and approximately 400,000 students have had to grapple with the fallout from a directive that many said felt like a poorly thought-through political ploy with profound health and academic consequences for Virginia's students and teachers.

In some places, teachers and parents reported satisfaction with mask-optional policies, noting they are making teaching and learning easier. In others, educators said they achieved a sense of tenuous normalcy, treating masked and unmasked students exactly the same while shrinking at the slightest sign of a sneeze, taking care themselves to wear the highest quality masks and washing their hands with extra intensity.

But elsewhere, families are opting to home-school their children, teachers say they are leaving or considering leaving the profession and students are watching, saddened and stressed, as the political fights that have consumed the adult world begin to infect their classrooms and friendships.

Judson Lero, a 17-year-old high school senior in Chesterfield Public Schools, followed along with dismay this month as adults in a Facebook comment section debated whether his district should keep or drop mask mandates. One mother promised to send her children to school maskless with printed copies of Youngkin's executive order, while others insulted school board members, labeling them "spineless" and a "clown show." Parents on both sides called each other names and said they hoped each other's children get kicked out or pulled away from school. Still another commenter urged Youngkin to defund the Chesapeake school system.

Lero, who identifies as politically independent, said in an interview that he dislikes masks, which he finds uncomfortable. But he doesn't mind wearing them in school because he knows some teachers feel unsafe otherwise. And he knows some classmates have vulnerable family members at home - like his girlfriend, whose 90-year-old grandfather is one of Lero's favorite people. So he chimed in on the thread, in the hope that adults would stop turning the pandemic into politics:

"from the deepest depths of my heart I am asking y'all parents to just work with the teachers and other students," he wrote on Jan. 20. "im just kindly asking you not to make life anymore chaotic than it already is."

That same evening, the Chesterfield school board voted to make masks optional.

- - -

Following the policy

Eventually, Lambert, the Chesapeake teacher convinced herself to get up from the breakfast table on Tuesday and head to work.

Once inside her high school of about 2,200 students, she said, she saw only a couple dozen without masks, including about five of the students she teaches. Adjusting her own KN95 mask, Lambert willed herself to behave normally with the masked and unmasked alike.

The most dangerous moment, she said, came when she walked over to a student who was struggling and needed help - and who had pulled down her cloth mask, tucking it below her chin.

"There was that split second of, 'Oh, I need to tell her to pull up her mask,' " Lambert said. "And then I remembered: Oh, wait. I can't."

Apart from that - and the ever-present worry that she might catch the virus - the week proceeded uneventfully, Lambert said, although she is watching herself closely for any coronavirus symptoms and discussing with her doctors whether she should put in a request for remote teaching, even though she suspects her district is unlikely to grant that accommodation. Teachers in several districts and private schools said their weeks also passed quietly, noting they managed to comply with administrators' instructions to treat students exactly the same regardless of masking status.

One music teacher at a private Catholic school in Arlington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his employer does not allow him to talk to the media, called the removal of masks a relief. After his school adopted Youngkin's mask-optional policy this week, about 30% of the student body began showing up maskless, he said - and things went smoothly.

"When students all have to sing in masks it impedes their singing," said the teacher, who is 52, Republican and vaccinated. "I'm gladdened we can all sing together again and we can see our faces when we sing."

Added Michelle Arseneault, 41, mother to a fourth-grader in Virginia Beach: "[My son] cannot tolerate wearing both a mask and his glasses, so he has been forced to not see in class." With optional masking, she said, he can finally view the lessons again.

In districts that opted to keep masking, promised parent protests did not materialize - except for two small demonstrations early in the week in Loudoun County, a wealthy and politically divided district of 81,000 that is often a hotbed of controversy. Loudoun saw about 100 students show up maskless over the course of the week, said spokesman Wayde Byard, and those students were placed apart from masked peers in common areas such as auditoriums, gyms or libraries. No students were punished, Byard said.

Other Northern Virginia systems that are keeping mask requirements also saw vanishingly small amounts of disobedience this week. Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said only 26 of the system's 180,000 students refused to put masks on, earning them one-day suspensions. Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said not a single one of the district's 23,000 students came to school maskless.

Meanwhile in mask-optional districts, school officials scrambled to develop new rules for teacher-student interactions over masks. Seeking to avoid awkward encounters and potential lawsuits, some districts now prohibit teachers from asking students anything about their masks. Teachers were also told not to group students by mask status, despite some parents' requests for that arrangement.

"We are unable to meet requests for special seating based on mask status," wrote one Chesterfield principal in a typical Thursday message to parents. "You are free to reach out to your child's teacher to check to see if your child wore their mask, but they will not be enforcing masking or the proper wearing of masks."

Reagan Davis, an eighth-grade math teacher in Chesapeake who heads the teachers union, said no teacher he knows would approach students about their mask-wearing anyway. Davis said educators are professionals who love and respect their students and do not want to make them uncomfortable.

For example, Davis said, although he strongly supports mandatory masking - and led his union to declare "no confidence" in the school board partly for removing mask requirements - he took a "business-as-usual" approach this past week. He did not alter his instructional practices or his seating chart, and said he enjoyed glimpsing maskless students' faces.

He also developed a stock response for any student who asks about his views on masking: "That's a great conversation for you to have with your grown-up,'" Davis replies.

"My job as an educator is to provide them the best education possible," he said. "It can be difficult because my heart's in one spot, but I know the [masking] policy is something else - and as an employee I have to follow that policy."

- - -

'This order is ending friendships'

For many households - especially those with elderly or immunocompromised members - Youngkin's mask-optional order ushered in a new era of turmoil two years into a pandemic already full of it.

In Chesapeake, mother Kasha Herek switched her child to home schooling this week after the end of required masking led the 9-year-old to fear going to school. In Virginia Beach, another mother - who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain her family's privacy - said she has kept her son home this week after the boy started crying and asked if he was going to die at school.

And in Chesterfield, an elementary school teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation warned that mask optionality will cause a huge spike in student quarantines, yielding floods of work for teachers who must develop extra assignments to keep them on track. She said Youngkin's mask order has led her to consider quitting for the first time in the pandemic.

"All that he's done is divide our state and made this a political thing - he sees teachers as the villain, is how it feels," the teacher said. "We are so broken down at this point by how little we are cared about anymore."

Parents say they worry for the future, and if and how children will begin acting out the heated rhetoric on masking many hear at home. Virginia Beach mother Cara Eggers, 50, who supports masking, instructed her children to be kind to everyone, maskless or not, before dropping them off at school this week.

Her daughter in middle school was at first pleased and surprised that so many classmates were still wearing masks, Eggers said. Then she found herself seated near four unmasked students, which made her "extremely nervous," but was too shy to ask the teacher if she could move. Later in the week, the girl heard other kids discussing how school policy barred teachers from asking about masks and proposing removing their own, although some of her classmates shared that unmasked students make them uncomfortable.

"She [doesn't] want to be a target of derision by the other children," Eggers said.

Elsewhere in Virginia Beach, the mother of a girl with a heart condition wonders if she should stop sending her child to school, where more of her daughter's classmates are going unmasked every day. The mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter's privacy, said one of the children in her medical support group - for parents of children who have congenital heart defects - died of covid-19 this month.

But her daughter suffered during online learning, and the mother is scared what will happen to the 14-year-old's mental health if she stays home. For now, the mother is sending emails to the school board pleading with them to reestablish a mask mandate.

"Bowing to a morally and scientifically untenable executive order isn't acceptable," she wrote on Tuesday. "I hope you will correct this mistake before it causes damage that can't be undone."

So far this week, the mother said, students who come anywhere near her daughter have stayed masked out of respect. But the mother stands ready to pull her daughter at any time, should that change.

Speaking at a school board meeting in Clarke County on Monday, Katie Kerr-Hobert, the lone board member to vote for keeping masking in that district, captured the frustration that many across Virginia are feeling. She said people, all the way up to Youngkin, are prioritizing what they perceive as personal rights over other people's health and safety.

"Listen to ourselves. Do we not care about each other?" said Kerr-Hobert, 42, who has two children in the school system. "It bothers me to the core what our country is becoming."

At almost exactly the same moment an hour away in Northern Virginia, Rebecca Webb was watching with mounting concern as her 17-year-old daughter, who attends the private Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, dissolved in tears at the dinner table. Masking conflicts had begun to bubble up at the Catholic school, Webb said, which enrolls students from a mix of deeply conservative and more liberal families and which adopted a mask-optional policy this week.

In her daughter's experience, teens from all kinds of families were close at Bishop O'Connell despite their political differences, Webb said - but now, fissures are opening. At least three of her daughter's close friends are showing up to school maskless, Webb said, and are inviting the girl to maskless social events.

The teen feels like she is being asked to choose between her friends and her parents, one of whom - her father - is a diabetic with high blood pressure, making him more susceptible to the virus.

"My daughter broke down crying, saying, 'I can't make these decisions. They're too hard,'" Webb said. "This order is ending friendships. It's just so divisive."

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