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Virginia recommends – but won’t mandate – that students, teachers wear masks indoors during the upcoming school year

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Masked second-grade students of Dumfries Elementary School read their iPads from behind plexiglass barriers affixed to their desks in March 2021. FILE photo.

Virginia's departments of health and education released new guidance for the state’s public schools Wednesday that recommends – but does not mandate – universal indoor masking in elementary schools and among middle and high school students who are not fully vaccinated.

But the guidance stops short of mandating any masking rules for public schools, once again leaving a controversial decision up to school divisions to navigate individually.

The new “ Interim Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools” reinforces the importance of in-person learning and supports school divisions in making decisions on masking and other prevention measures, as informed by local data and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a news release announcing the decision.

“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said in the news release. “This guidance takes into consideration recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics and will provide necessary flexibility for school divisions while ensuring a safe, healthy and world-class learning environment for Virginia’s students.”

“Again, I strongly urge every eligible Virginian to get vaccinated,” Northam added in the release. "Getting your shot will protect you, your family, and your community—and it is the only way we can beat this pandemic once and for all.”

Currently all schools must mandate face masks under a public health order issued by State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver, which is in effect until Sunday, July 25.

The order will not be extended, “giving school divisions the ability to implement local mask policies based on community level conditions and public health recommendations,” the news release said.

The announcement said state education and health officials are “strongly recommending” the following based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the upcoming school year:

  • Elementary schools should implement a requirement that students, teachers, and staff wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccination is available for children under 12 years old and there has been sufficient time to allow for children younger than 12 years old to be fully vaccinated.
  • At a minimum, middle and high schools should implement a requirement that students, teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated wear masks indoors. While school divisions regularly confirm school-required immunization records of their students, they should consult with their [school division attorneys] in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • All schools may want to consider universal masking for specific reasons as outlined in certain circumstances by the CDC.
  • All schools should be prepared to adjust local mask policies as local public health conditions evolve throughout the year.

Face masks will continue to be required on school buses as a result of the CDC’s federal order requiring masks be worn on public transportation, which applies to buses operated by Virginia public schools, the release said.

Fauquier County Public Schools stated in a July 9 press release, however, that the school division "no longer requires the wearing of masks in FCPS buildings, buses or grounds. Students and staff will continue to have the option to wear face masks if preferred. The updated mask protocol took effect on July 1 to align with the expiration of Gov. [Ralph] Northam’s Amended Declaration of Emergency, Executive Order 51."

The FCPS press release added, "The school division 'encourages each family to examine their individual situation, weigh their personal risks against benefits, and make a decision about mask-wearing that best suits their needs,' explained School Board members Donna Grove (chair, Cedar Run District) and Stephanie Litter-Reber (Lee District)."

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