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A Prince William County classroom last fall.

Rapp schools do not plan mandatory mask wearing as long as COVID-19 infections remain low

Two Virginia agencies are recommending that public schools require all elementary students, teachers and staff to wear masks in schools this fall, but the state gives local districts the authority to make ultimate decisions based on community data. 

The guidance from the state Department of Education and Department of Health, released Wednesday, leaves the decision regarding mask-wearing up to individual school divisions and also reinforces the importance of in-person learning.

Rappahannock County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley said Wednesday afternoon that the state's announcement would not immediately change the district's plans discussed at a school board meeting earlier this month. Masking among unvaccinated individuals in schools will be encouraged but not required.  

Dr. Grimsley was on a call with state officials ahead of today's guidance and is reassured by the data-driven decision making approach and the local data itself, which shows a low COVID-19 infection rate in the county and among the highest vaccination rates in the region.    

"Should we see spikes in transmission rates in our school community we reserve the right to put on universal masking protocols as a mitigation strategy,” Dr. Grimsley told the school board earlier this month and reiterated this afternoon.

The state agencies said masks should be required in elementary schools until COVID-19 vaccines are available for children under age 12 and there has been sufficient time to allow for the younger children to be fully vaccinated.

Other highlights of the guidance:

  • Middle and high schools should require that students, teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated wear masks indoors. School divisions should consult with their legal counsel in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • All schools may want to consider universal masking for specific reasons as outlined in certain circumstances by the Centers for Disease Control.
  • All schools should be prepared to adjust local mask policies as local public health conditions evolve throughout the year.
  • The CDC order requiring masks be worn on public transportation remains in effect, and applies to buses operated by Virginia public schools.

“The science is clear that vaccinations and masks help keep our communities safe from COVID-19,” said Dr. Daniel Carey, Virginia's secretary of health and human resources. “Due to the dedication, expertise and close partnership of the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education, the commonwealth’s children and the individuals that help them learn will be protected by proven strategies, without a one-size-fits-all approach.”

All schools in Virginia are required to make in-person instruction available to all students in the 2021-22 school year, pursuant to legislation passed during this winter's legislative session. According to the updated guidance, physical distancing of at least 3 feet should be maximized to the greatest extent possible but schools should not reduce in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.

“We know that students learn best in school buildings, and this guidance ensures that divisions have the flexibility and support they need to provide access to in-person learning five days a week,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “I’m grateful to all of the school administrators, educators and staff who have gone above and beyond to provide high quality instruction and support to students during this challenging time.”

The guidance recommends that divisions work with local health departments to implement mitigation strategies based on information about the levels of community transmission, local vaccine coverage, the occurrence of cases and outbreaks in schools, and the use of screening testing data to detect cases in schools.

Release of the guidance comes as the state is seeing a surge in new COVID-19 cases, primarily among unvaccinated individuals. The seven-day average of new cases is now over 460 a day statewide, the highest level since mid-May. 

 “Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” said Gov. Ralph Northam. “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. Again, I strongly urge every eligible Virginian to get vaccinated. 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.”

Just under 60% of all Virginians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and over 71% of adults have received at least one dose. However, the pace of vaccinations has declined sharply and is currently averaging only about 11,000 per day, the lowest level since early January.

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