New guidance from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Virginia Department of Education asks local divisions to implement their own mask guidelines based on the local COVID-19 environment.
The guidance doesn’t include mandatory policies for the whole Commonwealth, but does recommend requiring masks for everyone in elementary schools regardless of vaccination status until vaccines are available for children under 12. They also recommend that middle- and high-school staff and students should wear masks if not vaccinated.
“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” Governor Ralph Northam said in a press 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.”
After reaching all-time lows, COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations in Virginia are beginning to climb again. Vaccination rates have plateaued; 71.1 percent of adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but only 59.2 percent of the total population has received one dose. The CDC is only recommending COVID-19 vaccines for children 12 and up.
The VDH guidelines highlight community transmission of COVID-19 and vaccination levels as important guides for local officials in mask policy decision making. It says local officials should make decisions while consulting with legal counsel and local health officials, and that other strategies including social distancing and proper ventilation should also be used.
“Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccinating teachers, school staff, and students when eligible for vaccination is a critical layer of prevention and protection for all,” the guidelines state.
The guidelines come as local districts across Virginia are developing their own masking policies for the 2021-2022 school year; all districts are legally required to provide full-time, in-person learning options for all students. The guidelines are also informed by new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which recommended Monday that everyone older than two wear masks in schools.
“AAP recommends universal masking because a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines, and masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated. Many schools will not have a system to monitor vaccine status of students, teachers and staff, and some communities overall have low vaccination uptake where the virus may be circulating more prominently,” the AAP said.
The Virginia Education Association supported the AAP’s recommendation in a press release Wednesday: “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.”
Virginia House of Delegates Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) criticized the guidelines for delegating the decision-making to local schools, though he said Virginians should get vaccinated.
“Governor Northam failed Virginians throughout the pandemic, and this new guidance is just another example,” Gilbert said in a press release.
He said, “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.”
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