Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has issued a universal mask mandate for K-12 schools.
The order “reinforces current state law,” Northam’s office said in a statement, which requires that Virginia’s schools offer in-person instruction but also requires they follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC encouraged masks for schools late last month.
The move comes after a handful of school districts in recent days decided to buck the governor’s interpretation of the law and opt not to require face coverings. Tension over the issue has exploded at numerous school board meetings recently.
Dr. Laurie Forlano, the deputy director of the Office of Epidemiology at the Virginia Department of Health, told WTOP that the order applies to activities inside school buildings; that it doesn’t apply while eating and drinking, “mostly [exceptions] that have been previously available in prior orders.”
She added that mitigation strategies such as requiring masks and encouraging vaccines should alleviate parents’ concerns about sending their kids back to school.
“One of the things we’ve definitely learned is that closing schools and preventing in-person learning and in-person interaction for kids — that has harm as well,” Forlano said. “And we really need to balance the very important goal of communicable disease prevention with the very important goal of getting kids in the classroom and being with each other. .. I think we’ve learned that when schools implement mitigation strategies, the risk of in-school transmission can be quite low.”
“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” said Northam, a Democrat, in the statement. “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.”
Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said in the statement, “We know that masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination.”
As of Aug. 10, 40.3% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 51.7% of 16- and 17-year-olds in Virginia are fully vaccinated. Children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations are both on the rise in Virginia, although the state is not facing the same dire conditions as others in the South. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by about 132%.
Forlano added that vaccination, which Arlington County on Thursday required for teachers and staff in school buildings, “is the most powerful tool we have in the pandemic. And when we have a population, like young children, who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated, surrounding them with people who are vaccinated gives them a lot of buffer — like a layer of protection.”
WTOP’s Scott Gelman contributed to this report.