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Virginia leaves mask decision to school divisions, urges masks indoors for elementary school students

VDH says it also encourages masks for unvaccinated middle and high school students and staff.

RICHMOND, Va. — Schools in Virginia are taking new COVID-19 safety measures after local leaders released updated guidance for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year.

The Virginia Departments of Health and Education announced on Wednesday that new guidance for PreK-12 schools will be going into effect. 

Virginia strongly recommends masks for students in elementary schools while it urges masks for unvaccinated middle and high school students and staff.

But VDH is leaving mask requirement decisions up to local school divisions.

“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” said Governor Ralph Northam. 

“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. Again, I strongly urge every eligible Virginian to get vaccinated. Getting your shot will protect you, your family, and your community—and it is the only way we can beat this pandemic once and for all," Northam added.

RELATED: Health officials update mask guidance for vaccinated teachers, students

Virginia officials are encouraging in-state school divisions to follow these guidelines:

  • Elementary schools should require students, teachers, and staff to wear masks indoors with or without a vaccine. This is to ensure safety until the shot will be available for kids under 12 years of age.
  • Middle and high schools should require students, teachers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated to wear a mask indoors.
  • Consider 'universal masking' for specific reasons outlined by the CDC
  • All schools should be ready to change mask policies as health conditions continue to change over the course of the year.

“The science is clear that vaccinations and masks help keep our communities safe from COVID-19,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, MD, MHCM. “Due to the dedication, expertise, and close partnership of the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education, the Commonwealth’s children and the individuals that help them learn will be protected by proven strategies, without a one-size-fits-all approach.”

It is a state requirement that all schools make it available for students to return to in-person learning. That means many teachers will be returning to their classrooms this fall.

“As schools prepare to welcome students back for the 2021-2022 school year, our priority is on safely providing in-person instruction so that each and every child can learn and thrive in the classroom," said Dr. James Lane, Superintendent of Public Instruction. "With this latest guidance, and ample federal pandemic relief funds available to school divisions, our local school leaders are equipped to make local decisions on mitigation strategies that best fit their needs to ensure the safety of all students and staff.”

Parents sounded off on the mask debate Tuesday night at the Virginia Beach School Board Meeting.

The board voted against making masks optional.

Board Member Beverly Anderson says she felt the vote was premature.

“I voted not to go along with the resolution last night,” Anderson said. “I am not saying I won’t change my mind between now and September.”

Board member Jennifer Franklin pushed for a pass.

“I think that it is important to allow families to have the opportunity to know what they want to do for the fall, based on some of these decisions,” Franklin said.

She believes masks should be optional for all schools.

“We have got to decide as a family what our risk tolerance is going to be,” Franklin said. “And We have some great options in the school system, outside of the school system, if you choose to not take that option to come back face to face with the masks.”

Anderson knows parents are passionate about the topic, but she wants to vote again after reviewing state guidance.

“Each of those parents cared about their own child and I get that,” Anderson said. “But as a school board, we have to care about all children.”

Board Chair Carolyn Rye said they hope to have a recommendation from school leaders at the August 10 meeting.

Students in all school divisions will have to wear masks on school buses no matter what rules school leaders set in place. Masks are required on transportation by a federal order.

Dr. Parham Jaberi, the Acting District Health Director for the Virginia Beach Public Health Department said they are working with school officials.

"The Virginia Beach Department of Public Health will work closely with the Virginia Beach City Public Schools system in the coming days to discuss implementation of this new guidance or provide consultation as needed,” Dr. Jaberi said. “As the recommendations are just being shared from the Governor's Office with local health departments as well, conversation and coordination between the two systems will be key in the coming days."

This comes after Senate Bill 1303 stating that it's "an Act to require each school board to offer in-person instruction to students enrolled in the local school division; exceptions permitted." It was passed in the state's 2021 legislative session.