FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va.—Despite receiving four suspensions in five school days, Bronagh McAllister, a 10-year-old in Virginia’s largest school district, has persisted in going maskless to her school.
The fourth grader’s principal, Katie Cachine, who heads Waynewood Elementary School in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), gave Bronagh three one-day suspensions from Jan. 26 to Jan. 28, and a two-day suspension on Monday for refusing to wear a mask in school.
Bronagh’s mother, Neeley McAllister, said that starting from Jan. 26, the principal had walked up to them each morning as they were walking towards the school’s main entrance, and tried to persuade Bronagh to wear a mask.
“Good morning, Bronagh. Are you going to wear a mask today? We sure do miss you in school. We really want you there. Your friends miss you. Don’t you want to be in school?” Neeley recalled the principal’s efforts to convince Bronagh, describing Cachine’s approach as “friendly bullying.”
Bronagh’s school, in line with other schools in the northern Virginia county, has continued its mask mandate, despite an executive order by newly-elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin that made mask wearing optional in public schools.
According to Neeley, Bronagh’s teacher reached out on Jan. 31—the first time since the suspension began on Jan. 26—and emailed her that Schoology, FCPS’s virtual learning platform, would be updated to facilitate her daughter’s learning during the time she was excluded from school.
However, up until then, Bronagh couldn’t go to school and didn’t have an alternative way to learn, contrary to the policy announced at an FCPS virtual community town hall on Jan. 24.
In Bronagh’s latest suspension letter dated Jan. 31, Assistant Principal Alicia Lawson writes that the fourth-grader’s “presence at school without a proper face covering poses a continuing health and safety risk to other students and staff.”
“For this reason, Bronagh may return to school wearing a proper face covering, but otherwise will not be reinstated in school pending the appeal process, if an appeal is made,” the letter continues.
Mask wearing is a part of FCPS students’ dress code.
The McAllister family is a Gold Star family; Neeley’s husband died four years ago on Jan. 24 in line of duty while serving in the U.S. Army.
In a video Neeley shared with The Epoch Times, Bronagh explained her reason for not wearing a mask: “Because it’s hard to make friends. I can hardly hear my teacher.”
“My daughter learns better without a mask. She’s confident, comfortable, and unafraid without a mask,” said Neeley, adding that her daughter “yearns for interactive and social learning and self-expression.”
“It’s not ‘one size fits all,’” she said. “FCPS has overstepped their authority to dictate what is healthy both from a physical, psychological and emotional standpoint for my daughter.”
Neeley added, “Suspension is FCPS’s poor solution for those who won’t step in line like all the others.”
In an email, Helen Lloyd, FCPS communications director, told The Epoch Times that 26 students out of a total population of 180,000 across 1,999 schools in the county went to their schools maskless last week.
Monday, Jan. 24, was an FCPS holiday as well as the day that Gov. Youngkin’s mask-optional executive order went into effect. Younkin had signed the order on his first day in office, aimed at reversing a state-wide mask mandate in public schools.
While the governor’s executive order cited a Virginia law that endorses parents making decisions for their children, FCPS had determined to keep its mask mandate in place by citing a different state law (Senate Bill 1303) that requires schools to keep in-person learning in schools and follow guidance from the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC).
On Jan. 25, Bronagh and Neeley went to school with three of Neeley’s friends. Everyone was unmasked. One of the friends, Rose, is Bronagh’s emergency contact and picks Bronagh up from school on Tuesdays in her mother’s place. Rose is an alias used to protect the woman’s identity as the school has threatened her with legal action.
As Bronagh was walking to her classroom, Assistant Principal Alicia Lawson pulled her into the main office in the foyer, situated between the school doors and the main lobby. The next thing Neeley saw was that Bronagh exited the main office wearing a mask and entered the school lobby.
Bronagh told Neeley that she wouldn’t be able to go to school if she didn’t wear a mask, to which Neeley replied, “If that’s the consequence of your choice, I would support that.” Neeley told The Epoch Times that she wanted Bronagh to know she wouldn’t be upset if that was Bronagh’s concern.
At this point, the administrators present, principal Cachine, assistant principal Lawson, and Grace Taylor, the interim assistant superintendent of the region, invited Neeley and Bronagh to talk in the main office, but refused to allow Neeley’s friends to join the conversation.
So two out of the three friends, a man and a woman, stayed in the foyer the entire time, while Rose held the door of the school building open to overhear the conversation but didn’t enter the foyer, according to Rose.
While the principal spoke to Bronagh and Neeley in the main office, trying to persuade Bronagh to continue schooling by wearing a mask, a security guard arrived and told the three friends that police had been called and they would be charged with trespassing.
Rose then explained to the school administrators that even though she didn’t have children attending the school, she lived in the neighborhood, and her tax dollars supported the school.
“I jog through that school twice a week,” Rose, who’s in her 50s and herself graduated from FCPS, along with her children, told The Epoch Times. “I have been on that school property since I was in ninth grade.”
After seeing no chance of entering the school, the McAllisters and the three friends left the school. Shortly after, two police cars arrived. By that time, the male friend had driven away, while the two female friends and Neeley and Bronagh were near their cars parked across from the school.
The school security guard told the police officers that Neeley was a student’s mother, but the two other women, including Rose, needed to be charged with trespassing. Rose explained to the officers that she and her friend “didn’t raise an arm or even voice” at the school, she recounted.
Rose recalled that one of the police officers explained that if the school security guard issued a trespassing citation, he would have to enforce that. He asked for the three women’s identification. They refused to provide it.
A father whose son attended Waynewood happened to witness the scene. He confirmed Neeley and Rose’s description of the incident to The Epoch Times and added, “The little girl was crying, and they [officers] did nothing about it.”
He added that the school security guard was “barking orders” to the police officer who dealt with Neeley and company.
After the father left the scene, a third police car arrived with another officer who spoke to the principal, assistant principal, and security guard. Eventually, with the police officer’s mediation, the school security guard issued a verbal warning. Rose said she and the other friend were told that if they were caught on school grounds again, they would be considered trespassers and would be arrested.
According to Rose, she went to the school at about 8:45 a.m. and arrived home at around 10:20 a.m. after the police allowed her to leave. She lives about a three-minute drive from the school.
“I was completely and utterly outraged, quietly inside,” Rose told The Epoch Times. “I just could not believe that we’ve been reduced to parents not in charge of their children’s health and education anymore. I feel terrible that the bureaucrats claim to be on the child’s side when they’re really not.”
She added: “There are other agendas. It’s all about their power and control over what they are teaching the kids and how to keep the parents in line. It’s just outrageous to me.”
In response to an inquiry by The Epoch Times about Bronagh’s suspensions and the threat to press trespass charges against Neeley’s friends, FCPS media relations manager Julie Moult wrote in an email: “FCPS requires everyone, regardless of vaccination status to wear masks inside our buildings and on our school buses, except when alone in a room. This includes staff, students and visitors.”
Moult also referred to the Senate Bill 1303 that required maximum adherence to the CDC guidance, which recommends universal masking for K-12 education. “We need to continue to protect and serve everyone in our FCPS community,” she added.
During a virtual town hall on Jan. 24, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand called for the community to “stay the course” regarding the mask mandate. “The pandemic has required an amount of collective sacrifice for our community, for our country, for our world,” he added.
In response to a question about potential protests against FCPS’s mask mandate, Brabrand said, “We continue to have strong relationships with our Fairfax County Police Department. As you know, we have an SRO [Student Resource Officer] in all of our middle and high schools. And we have relationships between our police department and our elementary schools should there be a serious incident.”
The Epoch Times has also reached out to the Fairfax County Police Department for comment.
Children’s Development ‘Stunted’: Speech Therapist
Francesca J. Baker (alias), an FCPS speech-language pathologist and mother, said that she has been “inundated with referrals” since November. She spoke to The Epoch Times on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job.
Baker said it was “very difficult” to tease out whether students had learning disabilities or if their issues resulted from inadequate instruction due to not seeing teachers’ full faces.
“All of my kids in second grade and below are confusing sounds. Their speech and language development and social-emotional development are being stunted; I see it in front of my eyes,” she told The Epoch Times.
She explained that younger learners should develop phonological awareness skills—understanding sound and letter correspondence—before they are ready to and while they are learning to read. For example, some sounds, such as “th” and “f,” were similar.
“Because the students have not had access to faces, their phonological skills are significantly behind,” Baker said.
“I am 100 percent confident in saying that lack of visual access to faces prohibits speech, language, social, emotional, phonological awareness, and literacy skill development,” she said, adding that she worked at an affluent school.
Still, money couldn’t help parents solve their children’s development delay when two of Baker’s major tools as a therapist—the ability to have students see her mouth movements and give prompts and cues to guide students’ jaws, lips, and tongues—have been taken away.
Baker had recently been home with COVID, even though she had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in March and a booster in December. She had tested negative twice and was ready to return to work in person. First, however, FCPS human resources sent her a form to sign.
“Per CDC guidelines, I attest that I will wear a well-fitting mask around others and maintain at least 6 feet distance from others during mealtimes and when I remove my face mask, until after at least day 10. I also attest that I will comply with FCPS guidelines regarding mask mandates,” the form wrote.
A second checkbox above the signature line wrote, “I acknowledge falsification of information on this form may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination from FCPS.”
Though Baker had been fully vaccinated and had natural immunity from COVID, she would have to wear a mask and adhere to school policy, she said.
On Jan. 24, the Fairfax County school board, along with six other school boards in the state, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Youngkin in Arlington Circuit Court, seeking an immediate injunction barring enforcement of his mask-optional executive order.
“I know the governor says that he will respect the legal process, and we will respect the legal process. And I hope that we will have this resolved very soon,” said Superintendent Brabrand at the Jan. 24 evening community town hall.
“And I am confident that we have the appropriate legal arguments, for why we will be found correct in the court of law.”
Youngkin, in a statement on Jan. 21, defended his removal of mask mandates.
“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents,” he said. “Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents.”