Virginia officials release updated COVID-19 safety guidelines, mask mandate for schools

The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education released new guidance Wednesday for PreK-12 schools for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year which includes supporting school divisions in making decisions on masking and other prevention measures.

"Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do," said Gov. 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."

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics said it recommends all students and staff wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

READ MORE: AAP: Students, staff should wear masks in schools — regardless of vaccination status

"We’re fortunate that we’re in a really different place from last Fall. We know a lot more about coronavirus and we also have a vaccine this year but we do have to remember that a large portion of the pediatric population is not yet eligible for vaccination. So the AAP feels that the safest way to have all kids back in school is to have people masking indoors," Dr. Danielle Dooley, AAP Counsel on School Health and a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital said.

The State Health Commissioner’s Public Health Order is in effect until July 25 and will not be extended, giving school divisions the ability to implement local mask policies based on community-level conditions and public health recommendations. 

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"There are going to be a lot of children in our schools who haven’t been vaccinated so I anticipate making the guidelines so that children will have masks on when they’re in school. We just want everybody to be safe. We encourage folks to have their kids back in the classroom. That’s where they learn best but we want to keep them safe," Governor Northam said.

As informed by recent recommendations from the CDC, Virginia guidance strongly recommends divisions adopt the following for the 2021-2022 school year:

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

Most school districts in Northern Virginia are waiting on guidance from the Governor’s office before making a decision to require masks in classrooms.

All schools in Virginia are required to make in-person instruction available to all students in the 2021-2022 school year, pursuant to Senate Bill 1303 which was passed during Virginia’s 2021 legislative session.

According to the updated guidance, physical distancing of at least 3 feet should be maximized to the greatest extent possible but schools should not reduce in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.

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Just a few weeks ago, Virginia's State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver issued a new public health order that requires everyone ages five and older to wear masks when indoors at public and private K-12 schools.

Interim Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools is available here.