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 State 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 two state departments updated guidance that still prioritizes in-person instruction amid the spread of 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, like Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina and Texas. Last week, California announced a mandate to require masks in schools, then quickly reversed course.
The guidance urges mask wearing in elementary schools, but is more lenient with middle and high schoolers. State officials said that 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 if 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 an urge 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 that school districts have the option to confirm immunization records, but should consult their school board counsel.
Spokespersons for the public school divisions in Roanoke and Roanoke County, with the largest enrollments in Southwest Virginia, both said Wednesday that the policy recommendations are under review and announcements will be made soon.
The largest school division in the New River Valley, Montgomery County Public Schools, will hold a school board meeting Aug. 3 to vote on a plan that will provide the health and safety guidelines for the upcoming school year, according to Superintendent Mark Miear.
In the meantime, Montgomery County schools will specifically follow federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for a handful of school events set to occur between July 25 and the Aug. 12 start of the school year. The most recent CDC guidance specifically states masks should be worn indoors by all individuals ages 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated.
In Salem, where the new school years begins Aug. 30, "We plan to meet with our Leadership Team, that includes individuals from all six of our schools in Salem, and formulate a realistic plan that is both solid from a safety standpoint and effective from a learning perspective," Superintendent Alan Seibert said Wednesday.
Roanoke Times staff writers Yann Ranaivo, Jeff Sturgeon and Luke Weir contributed to this report.