WVa lawmakers seek to ban school mask, testing requirements

By Leah Willingham and John Raby - Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A group of Republican lawmakers in West Virginia is trying to pass a law forbidding mask mandates in K-12 schools and restricting districts from requiring COVID-19 testing for people who don’t have symptoms.

The “Public School Health Rights Act” would also prevent students or school employees from being made to quarantine or isolate unless they test positive for COVID-19. Those who do test positive can return to school after five days or a negative test.

Around two-thirds of West Virginia county school districts require masks in schools now — 35 out of 55, according to the state Department of Education. Most others have policies that trigger a mask requirement if cases in the state or school community reach a certain threshold. Hardy County requires masks for unvaccinated students.

House Bill 4071 prohibits school and elected officials from implementing mask mandates in schools or during extracurricular activities even in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak, which it defines as 10% or three or more positive cases within a core group of students or teachers. A core group could be one classroom or a sports team, according to the bill.

Raleigh County Del. Jordan Maynor said he authored the bill after hearing concerns from parents and teachers that the COVID-19 mandates were impacting students’ educational and social development.

“They told us that it was time to make a change, that it was time to empower parents, empower individuals and give them control of their own health decisions,” said Maynor, who is the father of four children.

The bill passed through the House Education Committee Wednesday in a packed meeting room where the majority of lawmakers were not wearing masks. The legislation will now be reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee. If approved there, it will go before the full House of Delegates, which is overwhelmingly Republican.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee was watching the committee’s discussion of the bill at the Capitol on Wednesday. The head of the union representing state teachers said he thinks the policy could hurt residents.

“I understand parents’ rights and am supportive of parents’ rights, but it comes to the point where your individual rights and safety can’t supersede the safety of others,” he said.

Lawmakers should be looking out for the safety of grandparents who are raising kids and are at risk for contracting severe cases of COVID-19, Lee said. West Virginia leads the nation in the number of grandparents who are raising children.

“Those are all things we should be taking into account,” Lee said. “Let’s get this out of the political battle and focus on the health and safety of our people first and foremost.”

Randolph County Democratic Del. Cody Thompson, a teacher, voted against moving the bill forward. He said he believes district officials can make the most informed decisions about the needs of their communities.

“You want to talk about the freedom of letting parents decide if their children have to wear a mask, but what about the freedom of me sending my child to school to be in a safe environment?” he said during the meeting.

Gov. Jim Justice has left the decision on masks in schools to officials in individual counties, and nearly all of the state’s counties have required them at some point.

The House hearing came as virus-related hospitalizations continue to climb. On Wednesday there were 915 virus patients in West Virginia hospitals, the highest number since Oct. 4.

Last week, the state smashed a seven-day record for confirmed cases with 20,400, topping the mark of about 17,100 set the previous week, according to health figures. Records of positive cases have now been set for three consecutive weeks.

By Leah Willingham and John Raby

Associated Press