Governor Ralph Northam mandated masks at indoor settings for all people over age two at public and private K-12 schools in Virginia.
Northam said in a Thursday announcement, “This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply.”
“We know that masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said. “As cases rise in our communities, universal masking and other mitigation measures will ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for Virginia’s children.”
School Masking Guidance Shifts
At the end of July, Northam issued guidance giving local schools discretion about masking policy, although the guidelines followed CDC recommendations that everyone wear masks until the COVID-19 vaccine is available for students less than 12 years old and they have had time to get the vaccine.
Then, amid rising concerns about a more-contagious variant of COVID-19 called the Delta variant, on August 7 Northam made an announcement ordering school districts to implement mask mandates. On August 6, a report from the University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute warned that current trajectories indicate that cases will exceed a peak in last January, and said vaccines are the best defense against the Delta variant. However, the report notes that even if vaccine acceptance increases to 85 percent of Virginia’s adult population by Labor Day, vaccines need time to take effect.
“However, as shown on page 2 in the ‘optimal vaccination’ scenarios, vaccination is not enough to significantly impact the high peaks projected for this fall,” the report said, recommending that people follow CDC guidelines.
In his August 7 announcement, Northam cited SB 1303, a law passed in 2021 that forces schools to have in-person classes. He said the law requires schools to follow CDC mitigation strategies. Republicans said Northam was misinterpreting the law.
In the week since that announcement, health officials and providers across the country have continued to express increased alarm about the Delta variant. The Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard shows case numbers climbing back up to levels not seen since March 2021. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association COVID-19 hospitalization trends data shows an increase from all-time lows in July to a seven-day moving average on August 12 of 832, a level not seen since the beginning of May.
Northam’s announcement launched a new wave of demonstration and heated public comment at local school board meetings across Virginia on Tuesday and Wednesday. Congressman Bob Good (R-Virginia-05) spoke at the Pittsylvania County School Board Tuesday meeting before they voted to institute a mask mandate.
“Parents should be the ultimate authority for their schools and for their children, and when Washington is wrong, or Richmond is wrong, it’s incumbent on the local school board to stand in the gap,” Good said. “When it comes to masks, it is political theater, it makes no difference.”
On Thursday, the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District reported that someone at that school board meeting was positive for COVID-19, and advised people who were in attendance to self-monitor for symptoms.
“The vast majority of school districts have chosen to follow the CDC and keep their school communities safe,” State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said in Northam’s Thursday press release. “Universal masking has worked in school settings across Virginia for the past year and a half, and it remains a critical part of our safety protocols. I’m grateful to Governor Northam and Dr. Oliver for this order, which will ensure uniformity across all school districts and keep students safely in their classrooms—no matter where they live in Virginia.”
Northam’s public health order takes away the remaining decision-making power local boards had and expands the mandate to private schools. It cites Virginia law for enforcement authority. Virginia Code Section 32.1-27 says that people violating state health directives are guilty of a Class One misdemeanor and can face fines up to $25,000.
In response to the mask mandate, Republicans across Virginia erupted.
House of Delegates Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in a press release, “Today’s statewide mandate is a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense. The idea of keeping masks on two-year-olds is the kind of thing that could only have been thought up by someone who has never dealt with a two-year-old. Further, local school divisions are best equipped to make their own decisions on whether or not to require masks in schools.”
The Virginia Senate GOP issued a press release also calling for local decision making: “Governor Northam’s announcement today makes it clear that he was not telling the truth in his attempt to impose a mask mandate last Thursday when he falsely claimed ‘the legislature made me do it.’ Now, having been called on his too-clever-by-half attempt to defray responsibility for his latest executive overreach, he has imposed yet another mandate usurping local authority without any opportunity for public input.”
In a press release, GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin called for parents to have the right to decide about masks.
He said, “With today’s student mask mandate announcement, Ralph Northam, Terry McAuliffe and Richmond liberals have made clear that they will stop at nothing to impose their will and take away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for our kids. Make no mistake about it, this mask mandate is the first step towards returning to a full shutdown of our economy.”
Good tweeted,“These obtrusive policies have no place in the classroom. Parents must continue to speak out for the rights and safety of all students, and against divisive curriculum and mask mandates that harm our children.”
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