Virginia’s departments of health and education are urging all elementary school students and staff to wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccines are available to children under 12.
The guidance released Wednesday afternoon falls short of mandating facial coverings for public school students, which has been required under an order from State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver. The directive, which requires students and staff in all K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, will not be extended after it expires on July 25, the two departments said in a release.
On Wednesday, the two state departments updated guidance that still prioritizes in-person instruction amid the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, days after the American Academy of Pediatrics released its own guidance urging everyone to wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status amid the spread of the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 83% of new COVID-19 cases across the country are the Delta variant, up from 50% during the first week of July. At least nine states have created laws prohibiting mask mandates in schools, like Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas. Last week, California announced a mandate to require masks in schools, then quickly reversed course.
The guidance urges mask wearing in elementary schools, but is more lenient with middle and high schoolers. State officials said that school districts should require masks at a minimum for unvaccinated older students. Schools should consider universal mask wearing if spread in school becomes severe, or if community transmission of a certain COVID-19 variant, such as Delta, that spreads more easily among children begins to increase substantially.
“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in a 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.”
A spokesperson for the Governor said it was important to “empower” school divisions to make their own decisions on masks. School divisions in the state have seen varied responses to mask mandates, from protests at School Board meetings to an urge from community members to remain masked up.
“This guidance empowers these local leaders to make data-driven decisions in consultation with their local health departments,” said Alena Yarmosky, spokesperson for Northam. “This is consistent with the approach we have taken on K-12 schools throughout this pandemic — recognizing that vaccination eligibility, community transmission, and disease burden vary greatly from school to school and community to community.” She also said that school districts have the option to confirm immunization records, but should consult their school board counsel.
Evidence has largely shown that children are less likely to get sick or die from COVID-19. However, some local schools are still shutting down due to COVID spread.
Broad Rock Elementary School in South Richmond, which is open for summer school, shut down on July 15 after a student tested positive for COVID-19, Superintendent Jason Kamras said in a weekly newsletter. It’s unclear how many people the school division had to contact during its contact tracing stage, but parents reported being required to quarantine during public comment at Monday’s School Board meeting. The site reopened Monday.
Richmond Public Schools is still opting to continue universal mask wearing, Kamras said in a statement on Wednesday. Of note, Richmond Public Schools was the last locality in the state to reopen for any sort of in-person instruction due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases with a mostly Black student body. Currently, just under half of Richmonders are vaccinated. In neighboring Chesterfield and Henrico, those rates jump to 61% and 64.3%, respectively, according to VDH data.
“Essentially, the announcement doesn’t change anything for us,” Kamras said. “We’re maintaining maximum vigilance.”
Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover officials all said they are reviewing the guidance, but didn’t offer details as to when they’ll announce their own changes. Currently, all are abiding by the mask mandate put in place by the state commissioner.
All school systems in Virginia are required to offer five days of in-person instruction beginning this fall thanks to Senate Bill 1303, which passed in the General Assembly in February.
Kenya Hunter is a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Staff writers Jess Nocera and Holly Prestidge contributed to this report.