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Some school boards are already changing mask policies, others have decisions to make

Weeks after leaving mask decisions to school divisions, Virginia state leaders say a new law requires schools to follow CDC guidelines, including 'universal masking'

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — A change of direction on masking in Virginia public schools is causing school boards to rethink their policies for the upcoming schoolyear.

On July 21, the Virginia Department of Education and Virginia Department of Health released new guidance encouraging masks requirements in schools, but ultimately leaving the decision to school divisions and school boards.

That sparked fierce mask debates at school board meetings across the Commonwealth, producing mask policies with varying requirements.

Thursday, Governor Northam said a new Virginia law requires school divisions to follow CDC recommendations - which currently include universal masking - in effect, rendering the debates and decisions irrelevant.

The Virginia law requires school boards to provide in-person instruction "in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

State Superintendent Dr. James Lane emailed all school divisions last night, saying: "School divisions should consult local counsel to ensure mitigation measures are in compliance with the law."

Some Republicans disagree with the interpretation of the law. 

In a statement, State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, the bill’s patron, said using the law to require masks is an “excuse” by Governor Northam to avoid issuing a new mask mandate. 

She said requiring masks in schools isn’t an "adaptable" form of in-person education.

Since Northam's statements and Lane's email, some school boards in Virginia have changed their mask policies.

Thursday night, the Augusta County School Board surrounding Staunton voted to reverse its prior decision making masks optional.

The Roanoke County School Board voted Friday, 3-2, to change its policy as well, requiring masks for the start of the schoolyear.

It’s all changing rapidly for teachers, like Ashlyn Hadley, who told 13News Now in May that she hoped masks wouldn’t be needed to keep children safe for the upcoming schoolyear.

"Reminding a kid to keep their face covered is very weird, but then we get here, and we know we’re trying to keep everybody safe and healthy and it’s just what we’ve got to do," Hadley said.

In Hampton Roads, the Chesapeake and York County school boards have already voted to make masks optional for the upcoming schoolyear. 

On Friday, Division leaders did not say if their policies will be changing to comply with the law and state leaders’ directives.

A Chesapeake Public Schools spokesperson responded and said the school division is closed on Fridays during the summer months, and no one was available to respond to inquiries.

The Portsmouth School Board plans to talk about masks at a retreat this weekend, and the Virginia Beach and Suffolk school boards will discuss policies next week. 

Hampton City Schools and Newport News Public Schools are requiring students and teachers to wear masks indoors.

Various other school divisions have yet to issue formal masking guideline announcements.

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