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Virginia's public health order on masks in schools ends this weekend, opening door for school districts to make their own rules

Departments in Virginia are recommending a mask requirement for any non-vaccinated student or teacher, plus masks for everyone in elementary schools

NORFOLK, Va. — Virginia’s public health order for public school masking expires this weekend – one of the last coronavirus health orders in the state.

Starting Monday, school districts will decide their own mask policies for this summer and the upcoming school year. 

The Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education are recommending a mask requirement for any non-vaccinated student or staff member.

“Our goal is to optimize the safety of those environments so kids can stay in school," said Dr. Laurie Forlano, MPH, Deputy Commissioner for Population Health for VDH.

The newly released guidance says vaccinated teachers and staff members in elementary schools should also wear masks.

“We thought modeling the way would be important for those younger kids and having a supervising adult wearing a mask would be important to show the kids and be in solidarity with them," Forlano said.

However, school divisions will ultimately make the call, as some parents press for mask-free, in-person education.

“It’s time to get the masks off our children because if not now, when," a parent told Virginia Beach school board members on Tuesday. "When COVID is gone? Because that’s never going to happen."

The new guidance recommends school boards make decisions based on data, like community transmission and vaccination coverage, outlining COVID-19 case indicators and levels of impact to a school. 

Forlano said taking a cautious approach to masking will help keep children in schools, instead of forcing educators to pull back to virtual learning.

“We are seeing an uptick of [COVID-19] cases in Virginia, I think it’s prudent to be a bit conservative as we go into this new school year, this is a context we haven’t experienced before," she said.

She hopes vaccines for all children will be available in the late fall or early winter, providing more protection and less need for masks.

“Once there’s been time for those younger children to be vaccinated, we’ll be looking at our guidance and seeing where we can make adjustments.”

A federal order requires masks on all public transportation. So, outside of the classroom, masks will be required on school buses.