A big update came Thursday for Virginia Schools as Governor Ralph Northam issued a public health order that will mandate masks in all K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. His office said this order has been issued for both public and private schools.
Northam's Public Health Emergency Order requires universal masking in all indoor settings in Virginia’s K-12 schools. This order reinforces current state law, which requires Virginia schools adhere to mitigation strategies outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of July 28, CDC guidelines include universal masking for all students, teachers, and staff. SB 1303 was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the General Assembly earlier this year.
This order comes as COVID-19 cases are surging in the Commonwealth, as hospitalizations are once again on the rise and as millions of kids under 12 are still not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Northam's office said 73% of all adults in Virginia have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. As of August 10, 40.3% of 12-15 year-olds in Virginia and 51.7% of 16-17 year olds in Virginia are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive any available vaccination, which is one reason CDC updated its guidance to recommend universal masking in all K-12 schools. Masks are a proven tool to reduce in-school transmission, even in communities with high levels of spread.
On Tuesday, Virginia reported over 2,000 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours, which was the first time this had happened since April.
The governor's previous guidance put the decision making power in the hands of local school divisions to decide whether masks are mandatory for kids when they return to the classroom in the fall.
After that guidance was released, many local school districts decided on requiring masks or not. For example, Chesapeake left it optional, Hampton, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Newport News made masks a requirement indoors, and Norfolk and Suffolk had yet to make a decision.
“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” said Governor Northam. “That’s why the General Assembly passed this law with overwhelming bipartisan support. This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply. I’m grateful to the work of the General Assembly and the Health Department, and I look forward to a safe start to the school year.”
Local school districts have started to react to the universal mandate. Their responses can be found below:
Chesapeake Public Schools
"As you may be aware, the Governor recently announced that a new Public Health Order has been issued by the State Health Commissioner.
This order requires individuals aged 2 and older to wear masks indoors in public and private K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status. This order became effective today, August 12, 2021, and will remain in force until CDC guidance changes or the order is rescinded. It is important to note that this new order does not apply outdoors or when students are participating in physical education classes.
Masking has become a sensitive issue for many over the past few months. While health officials and organizations continue to promote masks as one of the most effective mitigation strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many families believe the decision to have their child wear a mask is one that should be made solely by a parent or guardian. As a result, the School Board made the decision back in June to make mask-wearing optional in the absence of any governmental mandates.
In accordance with today’s governmental mandate, Chesapeake Public Schools will require students, staff, and visitors to wear a mask when indoors at all schools, effective immediately. Alternatives and reasonable accommodations will be considered for anyone who is unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition, disability, or for religious reasons. More information will be provided about this process at a later date.
As a reminder, all students are still required to wear a mask when riding the school bus.
I recognize that ever-changing guidelines and now reinstatement of the masking requirement have caused disagreement for quite a number of families, especially now as we are all working to plan for the upcoming school year. As always, I appreciate your understanding as we continue to navigate this recent mandate, and we will be sure to update our CPS families as soon as we finalize our plans for the fall."
Hampton City Schools
"All grade levels will operate five days a week, in-person, using a traditional school day/bell schedule. This will be the primary method of student learning for the 2021-2022 school year. As students return to the classroom, masks will be required for all students and staff (PreK-12) in the school building and while riding on a school bus. This decision is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).
Additional information, to include expectations and protocols for the opening of the 2021-2022 school year are located on the HCS homepage. For your convenience, you may click here for the direct link."
Portsmouth Public Schools
"At the School Board Retreat, which was held Saturday, Aug. 7, the Board heard the division's reopening plan, which included following Gov. Northam's legislation requiring school divisions to adhere to CDC guidelines. This information was shared with all students and staff Monday evening, and it is posted on our School Reopening webpage."
York County School Division
"The York County School Division is aware of the Virginia Health Commissioner’s order issued today, August 12, 2021 regarding mask requirements in schools. After consulting with the division’s legal counsel, we have been advised that the Commissioner’s order supersedes any local action.All School Board members have also been advised and have individually indicated they understand and support the division’s plan to comply with the state order. As such, the division will adhere to the commissioner’s order effective today.
The School Board’s next scheduled meeting will take place at 7 p.m., Monday, August 23, at York Hall (301 Main Street) at which time the Board will officially take action regarding the state mandate. If you have questions, please contact the division at firstname.lastname@example.org."
We will continue to update this list as more local school districts release statements.