Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration announced a new new health order Thursday making masks mandatory in all public school buildings, effectively overruling local school districts that were planning to make face coverings optional.
The new order from state Health Commissioner Norm Oliver, a Northam appointee, adds more clarity to what had been a mix of local mask policies, sending a clear message to reluctant school boards that they must follow updated mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The order allows exemptions for religious and medical reasons. Masks can also be taken off while eating, drinking, sleeping, exercising or playing some musical instruments.
Many school divisions have already chosen to require masks. But some school boards, some of them dealing with crowds of upset parents who argue they should decide whether their child is masked or not, have chosen not to impose the type of mandates strongly encouraged by health experts.
Thursday’s order marks the latest turn in the Northam administration’s evolving response to rules on school reopenings.
In July, the administration said localities could decide for themselves.
After the CDC updated its guidance in August in response to the rise of the delta variant, Northam said localities must comply with a bipartisan state law the General Assembly approved earlier this year that required schools to reopen while directing school leaders to follow CDC guidelines to hold in-person classes safely. After that announcement, Republicans accused Northam of trying to avoid responsibility for a more explicit mask mandate.
This week, the governor’s office said it was becoming clear some school leaders needed “additional clarification.”
“This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply,” Northam said in a news release.
The order will remain in effect until the CDC changes its guidelines are state officials decide to modify it.