(AP) 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 on Aug. 12.
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 week before the governor’s order.
“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 currently facing the same dire conditionsas 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%, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Republican lawmakers blasted the governor’s move on Aug. 12.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert called the new mandate “a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense.” Both he and the leadership of the Senate GOP caucus said local divisions should be able to make their own decisions about the issue.
For a short time, it looked as if that would be the case for the 2021-22 school year, which has already begun for some students in Virginia.
After a previous public health order that required masking in schools came to an end in July, Northam opted not to issue a new mandate. His administration said school divisions would have the ability to implement local policies based on community 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.
Then, 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 was 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.
Superintendent Dean Gilbert said in an interview on Aug. 12 that the school board was meeting later in the evening, and he expected the board would comply with the order.
“As superintendent – we want to do what we have to do to keep our students safe,” he said.
Other districts that had opted against mandates announced plans on Aug. 12 to follow the order, including Hanover County and Chesapeake.
Even in districts that adopted mask mandates, school board meetings have turned contentious over the past week.
In Virginia Beach, dozens of people spoke at a meeting that stretched into the early morning hours of Aug. 11 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.
The leading candidates in the closely watched race for Virginia governor also weighed in on the issue.
Republican Glenn Youngkin called the Northam administration’s move “a first step towards returning to a full shutdown of our economy” and said parents should be able to decide what is best for their children.
A spokesman for Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who recently issued a vaccine mandate for his staff, said McAuliffe “believes everyone should follow CDC guidelines in wearing masks and getting vaccinated.”