GREENE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - Greene County Public Schools (GCPS) is seeing its reopening plans going up in the air after the Thomas Jefferson Health District (TJHD) struck down a key part its plan.
For community leaders like School Board Vice Chair Todd Sansom, this raises larger concerns about who holds the real power when deciding back-to-school scenarios.
At the start of July, GCPS passed a hybrid plan that required students to wear masks when at school, except for when they are in their seats and 6 feet apart.
Now, over a month down the road, the health district is guiding the county’s school board in a different direction, which is causing some conflict.
“Now we have a bit of a mess, and we have a bit of a division in what was a fairly unified direction,” Sansom said.
Sansom says they had developed a plan based on safety and community feedback. “We crafted a plan that met all the CDC guidelines, it met all of the governor’s guidelines, and met all the social-distancing requirements,” he said.
Now, that plan is crumbling. TJHD wants to redirect the school board to have students wear masks all day, even when sitting 6 feet apart. Sansom is searching for answers why, but has not gotten much explanation.
“I think a change of this magnitude certainly warrants an explanation,” he said. “What does the Thomas Jefferson Health District know now on the 11th of August that they did not know throughout the month of July regarding children wearing masks for six or seven hours of time?”
“Masks, combined with 6 foot physical distancing, will increase the safety of all students, teachers, and staff. TJHD strongly urges all schools district require masks at all times if in person,” TJHD Spokesperson Kathryn Goodman said.
For Sansom, this also raises a larger question: Who has the real say in how schools reopen? He is quickly learning that it is not him or his board members, and not even the community or parents.
“The lawyers and the insurance companies are only going to approve plans that are approved by the local health district,” he said. “So at the end of the day, there’s an enforcement mechanism that requires school boards to toe the line that was put out there by the TJHD.”
Sansom says based on the severe lack of internet bandwidth across Greene County, an all-virtual start is not an option.
“They need in person instruction,” he said. “You can’t create an internet system here in a month. It’s really, really a difficult task and there was a significant majority of our community supported the plan.”
The biggest reason for that backing he says is the more lenient mask rule. Sansom fears that support will lose strength if kids are required to wear face coverings all day, even when properly distanced. The school board is unsure of where to go from here.
“We’re in a bit of a corner,” he said. “We would like to follow the health directives, but we have gone quite a ways down the path that does follow all the guidelines that were given to us less than a month ago.
Greene County will know more about the future of students after its school board meeting.