RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's administration issued new guidance Wednesday on COVID-19 prevention measures for the upcoming school year, urging but not requiring continued masking in many circumstances.
With a statewide public health order that had mandated masking in schools coming to an end Sunday, school divisions will have the ability to implement local policies “based on community level conditions and public health recommendations,” the Democratic administration said in a news release.
The departments of health and education released a 14-page document with advice about reducing the spread of the coronavirus, addressing issues like ventilation and physical distancing, in addition to masking.
The recommendations urge school divisions for now to adopt a universal masking policy for students and adults in elementary schools, regardless of vaccination status, because no vaccine has been approved yet for children under 12.
For middle and high schools, the state guidance says that “at a minimum” teachers, students and staff who aren't fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors.
The guidance provides flexibility for school divisions while ensuring a safe and healthy environment, Northam said in a statement, which also encouraged Virginians to get vaccinated if they have not already.
“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," said Northam, the nation's only doctor-governor.
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said in a statement that the new guidance amounted to a “cruel" requirement for young children, who are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19. He also said the guidance “passes the buck to local school divisions, will spark mass confusion, and will make it more difficult as our students return to the classroom this fall.”
Meanwhile the Virginia Education Association, a union of teachers and school staff, called on school divisions to implement universal masking to help stop the spread of the virus.
Northam lifted the state's indoor mask mandate in May, in line with guidance at the time from the federal government. But he said at the time that masks would still be required in K-12 public schools, given low rates of vaccination among children. The public health order from the state's health commissioner on June 30 extended the mask mandate further.
Across the country, schools districts are navigating polarizing mask requirements, vaccine rules and social distancing in widely divergent ways.
The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated. That's a different approach than that urged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which earlier this month recommended mask-wearing indoors only for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated.
Northam said the state's guidance considered both sets of recommendations.
School divisions should “consult with their counsel in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations,” the news release said.
All of Virginia's school divisions are required to provide in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year under a measure lawmakers passed earlier this year.
Wednesday's guidance urges school divisions to implement physical distancing of at least 3 feet to the greatest extent possible but says districts should not reduce in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.
Also Wednesday, more than two dozen Virginia health care organizations issued a joint statement urging Virginians who have not already gotten vaccinated to do so. It noted rising case counts and hospitalizations.
“Being vaccinated against COVID-19 represents a path to a healthier post-pandemic world by offering the best available protection for people against serious illness, the spread of infection, hospitalization, or worse health outcomes," the statement from groups including the Medical Society of Virginia and Virginia Nurses Association said. “Getting vaccinated offers protection to those who have been inoculated as well as the people around them in their personal and professional lives.”
About 64% of the adult population in Virginia has been fully vaccinated, according to state data. Case counts have been steadily increasing for about a month but are nowhere near the levels seen during the winter surge.