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Virginia issues universal mask mandate for K-12 schools

Public health order came down from Gov. Northam’s administration

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration issued a universal mask mandate for K-12 schools on Thursday.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration issued a universal mask mandate for K-12 schools on Thursday.

RICHMOND, Va. – Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration issued a universal mask mandate for K-12 schools on Thursday.

The move came after a handful of school districts in recent days decided to buck the governor’s interpretation of a state law and opt not to require face coverings, against the current recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[Here are the 7 exceptions to Virginia’s newly-issued mask mandate for schools]

“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” said Gov. Ralph Northam in a news release announcing the mandate. “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.”

The mandate came in the form of a public health order from the state health commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver.

[LIST: Which schools are requiring masks and which are not across Southwest, Central Virginia]

The governor’s administration has offered shifting guidance on the subject in the past month, frustrating some school officials and parents, as conditions worsened due to the surging delta variant of the coronavirus.

After a previous public health order that required masking in schools even after the statewide mandate was lifted came to an end in July, Northam opted not to issue a new one. He said school divisions would have the ability to implement local policies “based on community level conditions and public health recommendations.”

At the time, the CDC was not recommending indoor masking, but the agency changed its guidance in late July, recommending it for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.

At a news conference a week ago, Northam highlighted a law passed by the General Assembly earlier in the year mandating in-person instruction, saying it also requires school districts to follow mitigation strategies from the CDC “to the maximum extent practicable.”

Gov. Ralph Northam is scheduled to give an update on the coronavirus in the commonwealth on Thursday afternoon.
Gov. Ralph Northam is scheduled to give an update on the coronavirus in the commonwealth on Thursday afternoon.

The governor suggested school districts could face legal action if they did not comply.

His comments prompted some school districts that had not intended to require masks to reverse course. But some districts, mostly in rural areas, decided in recent days not to require masks.

Among them is mostly rural Patrick County, where the school board voted Monday to recommend but not mandate mask-wearing.

It was not immediately clear how districts without a mask mandate would respond to the latest directive.

In response to the mandate, the Virginia Education Association released the following statement:

Today, Governor Northam announced a public health order requiring universal masking in K-12 schools.

We applaud this move. Wearing masks in schools right now is a commonsense precaution that will save lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and state health officials are unanimous that keeping students and staff safe will require making vaccines available, masking, physical distancing, efficient ventilation, and other measures. All these are important—and masking up is a simple and responsible way for children and adults alike to slow community spread of COVID and keep Virginians out of hospital emergency rooms.

VEA places the highest priority on the health and safety of students, their families and communities, and school staffs. We called in July for universal masking as back-to-school season was starting, and we demand that school divisions across the Commonwealth follow the Governor’s call.

Everyone—students, parents, and members of the Virginia Education Association—wants a return to a normal school year with no disruptions in learning. By helping to make it possible for students to return to five days a week of in-person learning, masks are an essential tool.

VEA President James J. Fedderman

By his statement, Virginia House of Delegates Republican leader Todd Gilbert doesn’t share the same sentiments at the VEA:

Today’s statewide mandate is a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense. The idea of keeping masks on two-year-olds is the kind of thing that could only have been thought up by someone who has never dealt with a two-year-old. Further, local school divisions are best equipped to make their own decisions on whether or not to require masks in schools. I urge the Northam administration to change course. Regardless, this mandate cannot and must not be a trial run for a new round of lockdowns. Virginia has only begun to recover from the last round of overly broad restrictions. We can keep Virginians safe without destroying their livelihoods

Delegate Todd Gilbert

About the Authors:

Jeff Williamson arrived at WSLS 10 in March 2016.