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State issues mask order for K-12 schools

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver has issued a statewide mask-wearing order for anyone age 2 and up inside K-12 schools, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.

The order applies to teachers, students, staff and visitors to K-12 schools in Virginia. However, Oliver’s order provides exemptions for medical reasons or for sincerely held religious beliefs.

The decision by Oliver to issue the order comes in the wake of numerous school boards and school divisions across the state that have made masking optional, though many have also approved mask-wearing mandates. It also comes as case counts, hospitalizations and deaths rise due to COVID-19 and the increasing circulation of the Delta variant.

Gov. Ralph Northam initially deferred decisions on mask-wearing to local school divisions before last week citing SB 1303, which mandates five-day-per-week instruction along with following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health guidelines “to the maximum extent practicable.” He said the new order reinforces the legislation that passed the General Assembly.

“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a 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 Education Association President James Fedderman said he applauds the move.

“Wearing masks in schools right now is a commonsense precaution that will save lives,” Fedderman said in a statement.

As of Aug. 10, 40.3% of 12- to 15-year-olds in Virginia and 51.7%  of 16- to 17-year-olds in Virginia are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, which is one reason CDC updated its guidance to recommend universal masking in all K-12 schools.

“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,” Oliver said in a statement. “As cases rise in our communities, universal masking and other mitigation measures will ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for Virginia’s children.”

State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said masking has been effective in schools around the state for the past year and a half, and it remains a critical part of safety protocols.

Northam recently signed legislation providing $500 million to improve ventilation and air quality in public schools. Ventilation systems clean and disperse air, decreasing the risk of various airborne illnesses including COVID-19.

School divisions across the state have also received federal money for various initiatives tied to responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Exceptions to the order include:

  • People eating, drinking, or sleeping;
  • Those exercising or using exercise equipment
  • Anyone playing a musical instrument when wearing a mask would inhibit the playing of the instrument (e.g., wind or brass instrument) so long as at least six feet of physical distance can be maintained from other persons;
  • Anyone who has difficulty breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise not able to take off their mask without assistance;
  • Anyone who has a disability or meets at-risk criteria, or people who are helping them, including students with an Individualized Education Plan or 504 plan under the Rehabilitation Act, where wearing a mask would inhibit communication or the receiving of services.
  • When necessary to participate in a religious ritual; and
  • People with health conditions or disabilities that keep them from wearing a mask.

The order does not require anyone with a medical condition to wear a mask when it impacts their health and safety, and they can request reasonable accommodations.