New COVID-19 safety guidelines, mask mandates for students in VA: Here's what it means for your child

School districts now have new guidelines for the new school year.

The Virginia Departments of Health and Education issued their joint 2021 Fall COVID-19 safety recommendations Wednesday afternoon.

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The state districts should consider requiring all students, faculty and staff in elementary schools to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

However, the recommendations for middle and high schools are slightly different. The state says, "at minimum" middle and high schools should require unvaccinated students, teachers and staff to wear masks indoors. The guidance leaves room for districts to allow vaccinated people to go maskless inside school buildings.

The VDOE and VDH recommendations are in line with CDC guidelines but differ slightly from the American Academy of Pediatrics who said earlier this week all people should be required to wear masks inside school buildings regardless of vaccination status.

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"AAP’s rationale, as I understand it, was that there’s still a lot of kids not vaccinated. We agree with that and we know that to be true in elementary schools. With middle and high schools we felt it was ok to give a recommendation that gave a little more flexibility there. There are variable vaccination rates from community to community. Some communities are doing better than others. Vaccine is available for every one 12 and up and we want everyone to take advantage of that so we felt it was ok to give people some more flexibility," Dr. Laurie Forlano, Deputy Director of the Office of Epidemiology at VDH said.

There are also some changes to screening students for COVID. The new state guidelines only recommend screening unvaccinated students and staff once a week during period of moderate to high transmission. Dr. Forlano says the state is working on rolling out a new program in the Fall to help districts with COVID screening.

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"What this would be is screening students or staff regularly, so say weekly, with their consent and voluntary participation. And the point of that is to catch cases early, especially asymptomatic cases and to prevent the introduction of COVID19 into a school," she said.

The state has also eased back a little on social distancing requirements. It now recommends 3ft feet of social distancing in elementary schools combined with mask-wearing regardless of vaccination status. In middle and high schools it recommends 3ft of social distancing between only unvaccinated people upping it to 6ft during times of high transmission.

Local school districts have the final decision on which guidelines to implement.

Fox 5 asked VDH if COVID19 vaccines will become a vaccination requirement to attend school. The department said there are currently no plans for that.