New mask guidance for return to classroom in Virginia

Local health departments, school divisions have final say
The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education have released new...
The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education have released new guidance for PreK-12 schools in Virginia for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year.(Storyblocks)
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 1:12 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2021 at 4:24 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education have released new guidance for PreK-12 schools in Virginia for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year.

“The intent here is to empower those local decision-makers to make data-driven, locally informed decisions that best suit the situation on their area and I think this guidance does that,” said Dr. Laurie Forlano, Virginia Department of Health.

PreK-12 schools in the state will be able to enforce their own local mask policies based on local data and community-level conditions provided by the CDC. Because of this, the State Health Commissioner’s Public Health Order is in effect until July 25 and will not be extended.

“We felt like it was a good balance and this gives localities the flexibility to use local data and context in making these policy decisions,” said Dr. Forlano.

However, Virginia guidance strongly recommends school divisions practice these measures for the 2021-2022 school year:

  • Elementary schools should require vaccinated or non-vaccinated students, teachers and staff to wear masks indoors until vaccines are available to children who are 12 years old or younger and for children in that age group to be fully vaccinated.
  • Middle and high school students who are not fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors and to establish how to confirm students and staff have been vaccinated.
  • Consider universal masking for reasons outlined by the CDC.
  • All schools should adjust local mask policies as local public health conditions evolve during the year.

“All of these things put together within the school system will be what helps to minimize further transmission, and so that’s where the rubber meets the road. We will be, certainly, we will be talking with our school districts,” said Dr. Melissa Viray, Richmond - Henrico Health Districts.

Interim Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools is available here.

Governor Ralph Northam’s office says throughout the pandemic school divisions have been allowed to make local decisions and this is just that next step. Under a new law, all schools in the state are required to offer an in-person learning option this upcoming school year.

“We may not want to wait for it to be everywhere in the state. We may want to see what’s going on locally and say let’s make this decision as most appropriate for us locally and not necessarily do the same thing across the state,” said Dr. Viray.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert issued the following statement:

“Governor Northam failed Virginians throughout the pandemic, and this new guidance is just another example. It is inconsistent with science, passes the buck to local school divisions, will spark mass confusion, and will make it more difficult as our students return to the classroom this fall. It’s an especially cruel requirement for young children, and will only make it more difficult for our teachers to inspire a love of learning in students.

“To be clear, I urge Virginians to get vaccinated if at all possible, so we can continue to move past this disease, keep our economy open, and return to normal. But there’s nothing to indicate that requiring an eight-year-old to wear a mask while taking a math test will substantially reduce the transmission of COVID, or any new variant that is emerging.

“At the upcoming General Assembly special session, Republicans will once again push our Democratic colleagues to take responsibility and take legislative action against any kind of mask mandate in our schools.”

VEA President James J. Fedderman issued the following statement about COVID safety:

“On Monday, the American Association of Pediatrics recommended that as we return to school buildings, all children over 2 years of age and all adults should wear masks to further prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has now killed more than 600,000 Americans.

“The Virginia Education Association strongly endorses this recommendation as one of the mitigating strategies we need to take to stop the spread of this virus.

“Only a multi-layered approach is going to protect the health and safety of our students, their families and communities, and the educators who are serving the children. We have seen new variants of COVID emerge that are more easily transmitted from one person to another. New cases of COVID are affecting more younger Americans.

“Let me be quite clear: we need fewer Americans in hospital beds and more students at their desks with their dedicated teachers and support staff.

“And everyone has a role in making that happen. Everyone eligible for a vaccine should be getting it. All adults and children above the age of two should wear masks in school buildings and during school activities. School divisions must provide adequate space and ventilation for everyone to study and to do their jobs safely.

“We are making progress against this virus—but we cannot let it gain a new foothold in our communities and in our schools. Wearing masks is a small price to pay for keeping everyone healthy and learning.”

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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