Ralph Northam

Virginia Recommends Masks in Schools This Fall, Gives Districts Flexibility

Elementary schools should require all students and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, the state recommended

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Virginia health and education officials recommended on Wednesday that many students and staff members wear face masks inside schools this fall, but opted to give school districts flexibility to set rules that take local coronavirus data into account.  

The Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education issued these recommendations: 

  • Elementary schools should require all students and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccines are available for children under 12 and many young students have been fully vaccinated. 
  • Middle and high schools should “at a minimum” require that students and staff who are not fully vaccinated wear masks indoors. 
  • Middle and high schools are advised to consult their lawyers about whether to confirm that students and staff members are vaccinated, and how to do so.
  • Schools may want to require that all students and staff wear masks if they meet some CDC criteria on COVID-19. Also, schools should prepare to adjust their policies as health conditions change. 

Gov. Ralph Northam strongly recommends vaccination against COVID-19. He said the state’s guidance takes into account both CDC recommendations and local considerations. 

“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” he said in a statement. “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.” 

State officials opted not to take a “one-size-fits-all approach,” Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey said in a statement. 

It will likely take awhile for school district attorneys to review the recommendations and decide on rules for the fall. 

Virginia’s current mask mandate for school buildings is set to expire Sunday. 

Some local parents said they thought the new guidance made sense. Others said they thought it was unfair. 

“I think that ultimately this boils down to the right to choose. If people feel more comfortable sending their kids back to school wearing a mask, then they should do that. Those of us that don't should have that option too,” said Gina Wisor, the mother of two elementary school students in Loudoun County.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said in a statement that the new guidance amounted to a “cruel" requirement for young children, who are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19. He also said the guidance “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.”

Meanwhile the Virginia Education Association, a union of teachers and school staff, called on school divisions to implement universal masking to help stop the spread of the virus. 

Across the country, schools districts are navigating polarizing mask requirements, vaccine rules and social distancing in widely divergent ways.

AAP, the leading national pediatrician group — of which Northam is a member — recommended in updated guidance on Monday that everyone older than 2 wear masks in schools this fall, regardless of vaccination status. 

The group said it recommends universal masking because so much of the student population is still not eligible for vaccination. 

Research consistently shows opening schools in person does not generally increase community COVID transmission when masks and other protocol are employed, AAP said, and the emergence of more contagious variants, some of which are linked to more severe outcomes, poses a particular threat to people who aren't vaccinated.

There have been concerns that asking for proof of vaccination is a violation of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) laws. The federal government says, though, that it is not. The Department of Health and Human Services says HIPAA prevents someone from sharing your medical information without your consent. It's legal for someone to ask for your vaccination status because you choose whether to share the information.

All of Virginia's school divisions are required to provide in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year under a measure lawmakers passed earlier this year. 

Wednesday's guidance urges school divisions to implement physical distancing of at least 3 feet to the greatest extent possible but says districts should not reduce in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement. 

Also Wednesday, more than two dozen Virginia health care organizations issued a joint statement urging Virginians who have not already gotten vaccinated to do so. It noted rising case counts and hospitalizations. 

“Being vaccinated against COVID-19 represents a path to a healthier post-pandemic world by offering the best available protection for people against serious illness, the spread of infection, hospitalization, or worse health outcomes," the statement from groups including the Medical Society of Virginia and Virginia Nurses Association said. “Getting vaccinated offers protection to those who have been inoculated as well as the people around them in their personal and professional lives.”

About 64% of the adult population in Virginia has been fully vaccinated, according to state data. Case counts have been steadily increasing for about a month but are nowhere near the levels seen during the winter surge. 

Stay with NBC Washington for more details on this developing story. 

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