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New State Guidance Recommends - but Doesn’t Require - Masks in Schools

school buses
School buses parked at a Chesterfield County school. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

The Virginia Department of Education – along with the Virginia Department of Health – released new guidance for pre-K-12 schools Wednesday as students prepare to resume in-person instruction.

A statewide public health order that mandated masking in schools is expiring this Sunday and will not be renewed. This means more flexibility for local school divisions, despite the state’s urging to continue requiring masks.

“I think we're not ready to make that call yet about when we could take off our masks,” said Dr. Laurie Forlano, VDH’s Deputy Director of the Office of Epidemiology. “That's not the CDC nor the VDH’s recommendation right now.”

The guidance strongly recommends school districts require all students in all grades, teachers and staff to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status until vaccines are available for children under 12.

At a minimum, it suggests a mask requirement for all middle and high school students who are not yet vaccinated. It also points to universal mask requirements, as recommended by the CDC for schools to consider when it’s difficult to monitor or enforce mask policies and vaccination requirements that are not universal.

But it is just guidance, not a state mandate, and it will ultimately be up to individual school boards to decide whether or not to require masks in their respective districts this fall. Charles Pyle, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education, confirmed that school districts will not be required to submit reopening plans to the state like they did last fall as part of an executive order.

A release from the governor’s office states that school divisions will “have the ability to implement their own local mask policies based on community conditions and public health recommendations.”

Forlano said that means localities should look at local health data - things like COVID-19 transmission rates in their area, vaccination coverage and the level of impact to their schools - to help guide their decisions about local policies.

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