RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In light of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order 2 which bans school mask mandates, the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education have released new guidelines based on that order.
Instead of a state-wide mask mandate for schools, the governor has determined it will be up to parents to decide if their child has to wear a mask to school.
On the national level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal mask use by all students, staff, teachers and visitors in schools. The CDC states that masks, including cloth masks, help to block droplets from spreading and filter droplets for the mask wearer.
The recent guidelines from Virginia argue that cloth masks provide reduced or no benefit to virus prevention. The document states that masks may be uncomfortable or impact a child’s emotional state. The guidelines also contend that masking could impact a child’s ability to communicate, perceive emotion or make social connections. It includes that N95 or KN95 masks in particular may be “poorly tolerated by children.”
The CDC states that a study of school mask requirements in 2021 found that schools without mask mandates saw larger increases in pediatric COVID-19 case rates compared to those that had mask requirements.
Youngkin shared the new guidelines along with his response in a press release on Friday afternoon. The governor said parents can now opt-out of masks at both public and private schools.
The governor said his executive order is not about pro-mask or anti-mask argument, instead he claims it is about “empowering parents.”
This decision contradicts the Virginia law that requires school districts to follow CDC guidelines “to the maximum extent practicable” until Aug. 1, 2022. Certain Central Virginia school districts including Richmond and Henrico have opted to keep their districtwide mask mandate citing that law.
The newly released guidelines state that, “Mitigation strategies that reduce COVID-19 transmission can be reduced now that effective vaccines are available, and the current predominant variant (Omicron) is causing less severe disease.”
Another often recommended strategy for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has been physical distancing. The state’s newest guidelines offer a broad interpretation of when to use this strategy. stating that schools should “reasonable measures to ensure physical distancing where possible.”
It clearly states that teachers are not allowed to treat masked and unmasked students differently when it comes to physical distancing.
Schools are suggested to layer other mitigation strategies such as increased ventilation, testing, hand hygiene and cleaning when it is not possible to keep distances of 3 feet between students.
The new guidelines divide up the responsibility of keeping schools safe from COVID-19 between parents, school staff and public health organizations. The new guidelines state that kids being vaccinated, masked and kept home when ill is up to the parents. While school districts are tasked with proper ventilation, physical distancing, offering COVID-19 test programs, hygiene, contact tracing and clean facilities. It is up to public health agencies to provide the other groups with data and information as well as responding to outbreak reports.
8News reached out to Central Virginia school districts to gauge their response on the new guidelines but due to the late Friday afternoon release, only two responded. Petersburg and Henrico school divisions both say they are reviewing the detailed document but have not had time to fully analyze the guidance.