Students, teachers, and staff at public and private K-12 schools must wear a mask while indoors under a new public health order Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration issued Thursday.
The move came after a handful of school districts in recent days decided to buck the governor’s interpretation of a state law and opt not to require face coverings, against the current recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tension over the politically divisive issue has exploded at one school board meeting after other in the past week.
“This is a way to ensure uniformity in schools across Virginia,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
The mandate came in the form of a public health order from the state health commissioner, Dr. Norman Oliver.
It requires that any individual aged 2 or older wear a mask while inside a school building, with limited exceptions for activities including eating, drinking, sleeping, and exercising. The text of the order says it takes effect Thursday and will remain in effect until the CDC guidelines change.
The order also says anyone with a medical condition or sincerely held religious objection to wearing a mask “may request a reasonable accommodation.”
The governor’s administration has offered shifting guidance on the subject in the past month as conditions worsened due to the surging delta variant of the coronavirus, frustrating some school officials and parents.
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 nearly 988, an increase of about 132 percent, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
House GOP Leader Todd Gilbert called the new mandate “a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense,” saying in a statement that local divisions are best equipped to make their own decisions about the issue.
Nine states have banned school districts from setting universal mask mandates. Those bans are in effect in six states. In the remaining three states, mask mandate bans have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.
MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT
- South Carolina
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
*On Sept. 10, a Florida judge reinstated the state’s ban on school mask mandates.
On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of the requirement if they choose.
Tennessee‘s governor has signed an executive order requiring schools to allow families to opt out of mask mandates.
In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.
An Arizona judge ruled the state law banning mask mandates will not go into effect until Sept. 29.
In Arkansas, a judge paused the state law that prohibits local officials from setting mask mandates, meaning school districts can—at least for now—set their own local mask requirements.
On Sept. 13, a federal district court ordered Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools.
Updated guidance released by the Texas Education Agency on Sept. 17 states that per the governor’s executive order, school systems “cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.”
Updated 9/21/2021 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here
After a previous public health order that required masking in schools came to an end in July, Northam opted not to issue a new one. He said school divisions would have the ability to implement local policies “based on community level conditions and public health recommendations.”
At the time, the CDC was not recommending indoor masking, but the agency changed its guidance in late July, recommending it for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.
At a news conference a week ago, Northam highlighted a law passed by the General Assembly earlier in the year mandating in-person instruction, emphasizing that it also requires school districts to follow mitigation strategies from the CDC “to the maximum extent practicable.”
The governor suggested school districts could face legal action if they did not comply.
His comments prompted some school districts that had not intended to require masks to reverse course. But other districts decided in recent days not to require masks.
Among them is mostly rural Patrick County, where the school board voted Monday to recommend but not mandate mask-wearing, against the advice of its attorney and insurance agent, the Martinsville Bulletin reported.
Hanover County, outside of Richmond, also opted against a mask mandate, according to local news outlets.
And school board meetings even in districts that ultimately have adopted mask mandate have turned contentious.
In Virginia Beach, dozens of people spoke at a meeting that went into the early morning hours of Wednesday before the school board ultimately voted to require masks, The Virginian-Pilot reported. Some speakers cursed the board, made offensive gestures at them and accused them of child abuse, according to the newspaper.
It was not immediately clear how districts without a mask mandate would respond to the latest directive.
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