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New state guidance urges all Virginia elementary schools to require masks
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New state guidance urges all Virginia elementary schools to require masks

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RICHMOND — 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 falls short of mandating facial coverings for public school students, which has been required under an order from Virginia 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 July 25, the two departments said in a release.

On Wednesday, the departments updated guidance that still prioritizes in-person instruction during 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, including Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina and Texas. Last week, California announced a mandate to require masks in schools, but quickly reversed course.

The Virginia guidance urges wearing masks in elementary schools, but it is more lenient with middle- and high-schoolers. State officials said 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 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 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.”

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 urging 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 school districts have the option to confirm immunization records but should consult their school board counsel.

Evidence largely has shown that children are less likely to get sick or die from COVID-19. However, some local schools are still shutting down due to the virus’s spread.

The Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions will require masks for at least some students.

“Per state and CDC guidance, pre-K through grade 6 will wear masks,” Beth Baptist, interim director of student services and achievement for the city school division, said in a statement. “There is differing guidance and state leeway on ages 12-plus, so we will work with local health experts and our School Board to finalize that decision.”

The Albemarle County School Board approved some changes to its mask policy earlier this month, which allowed students and staff members to remove their masks when outside, and other mitigation measures are in place.

Albemarle schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said division staff still needs to review the latest state guidance, but after an initial reading, he said he thinks the guidance aligns closely with the division’s current policy.

Giaramita noted that the division has been faithful about following state guidance over the last year.

Putting the decision in the hands of local school boards was a positive change, he said, especially with the county’s relatively low case counts and high vaccination rates.

“The ability to align our mask policy with what’s actually going on in the community has a lot of merit,” he said.

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.

Daily Progress staff writer Katherine Knott contributed to this story.

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