The Virginia Department of Health has issued new guidance advising schools in the commonwealth to mandate widespread mask-wearing inside elementary schools, among other health safety protocols.
The new guidelines arrive just as the state health commissioner’s public health order is set to expire July 25. When that order expires, schools will be allowed to set their own health policies.
The health department recommends, but does not require, all students, teachers and staff wear masks indoors — regardless of their individual vaccination status — until children under 12 years old can get their shots, and enough time has passed for them to be fully vaccinated.
They also advise middle and high schools to adopt policies requiring unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors.
The health department notes that while it is common practice for schools to keep immunization records, they should work with their counsel to determine whether and how to confirm students and staff have been vaccinated.
“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement. “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.”
The guidance emphasizes a classroom-first approach to health safety in schools — while sports and school events are important, they should take a back seat to classroom learning if community transmission becomes an issue, as it notes those activities are a common source of school transmission.
The health department warned that all schools should be prepared to adjust mask policies as their local health departments advise.
“Schools occupy a special place in the life of our communities, and we need to do everything we can to keep everyone in them safe. This guidance is aimed at protecting students, educators, and staff while also providing localities with flexibility,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver said in a statement. “We continue to urge eligible Virginians to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their families and their communities.”
Public school systems in Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Spotsylvania counties and the City of Alexandria told WTOP that the are reviewing the current guidelines and will announce their plans soon.
A spokesperson for Spotsylvania County Public Schools said the county school board will discuss the guidance at their next meeting on July 26.
Loudoun County Public Schools will have a statement for the community on masking recommendations “in the near future,” according to a spokesperson.
WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report.