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Back to school: Virginia issues new guidance for returning to classrooms

The guidelines reinforce the importance of in-person learning and encourage schools to make decisions on masking and other preventative measures locally.

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education released new back-to-school guidance Wednesday for the state’s public schools, including recommendations for mask usage in classrooms.

The guidelines emphasize the importance of in-person learning and encourage school divisions to implement their own individual preventative measures to ensure in-person learning can continue. The departments said schools should consider various measures, such as masking, based on information about the levels of community transmission, local vaccine coverage, total cases and outbreaks in schools and the use of screening testing data to detect cases in schools.

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

The State Health Commissioner’s Public Health Order is in effect until Sunday, July 25 and won't be extended. However, the state is strongly encouraging a few recommendations for its schools, informed by guidance from the CDC:

  • Elementary schools should implement a requirement that students, teachers, and staff wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccination is available for children under 12 years old and there has been sufficient time to allow for children younger than 12 years old to be fully vaccinated.

  • At a minimum, middle and high schools should implement a requirement that students, teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated wear masks indoors. While school divisions regularly confirm school-required immunization records of their students, they should consult with their counsel in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations.

  • All schools may want to consider universal masking for specific reasons as outlined in certain circumstances by the CDC.

  • All schools should be prepared to adjust local mask policies as local public health conditions evolve throughout the year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended all staff and students – ages two and up – wear masks inside school buildings, unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit their use. The Academy said not all schools have the resources needed to monitor the vaccination status of their students.

"We should be requiring masks of all individuals when they're in our schools when students are present," Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams. "With the delta variant and potential mutations of the virus out there, keeping everyone masked means keeping our students in school in person."

Adams said the majority of the parents and students she's spoken to are on board with the masks. Summer school sessions are already utilizing the mask policy in which Adams said is working. 

However, there's ongoing opposition from other parents who feel the mask requirements have gone too far. Samantha Stephens said her 8-year-old daughter continues to have a hard time with wearing masks.

"I just think it's time to let kids be kids again and let them experience the normal way of school," Stephens said." Get rid of the masks and see what happens, if it gets worse, then we can talk again."

In addition, the CDC federal order requiring masks be worn on public transportation remains in effect and applies to buses operated by Virginia public schools. 

All schools in Virginia are now also required to make in-person instruction available to all students in the 2021-2022 school year, as detailed in Senate Bill 1303, which was passed during Virginia’s 2021 legislative session. The physical distance of at least three feet should continue to be maximized, but guidance specifies that schools should not reduce in-person learning to keep the minimum distance requirement.

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