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Virginia Mandates Face Masks for all K-12 Schools

August 12, 2021 by Dan McCue
Gov. Ralph Northam wearing a mask in a classroom. (Governor Ralph Northam's office)

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an emergency order last Thursday requiring that face masks be worn in all indoor settings in the state’s K-12 schools.

The move comes 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.

Tension over the issue has exploded at numerous school board meetings recently.

Northam said the emergency order reinforces the law in question, SB 1303, which he has argued requires Virginia schools adhere to mitigation strategies outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

As of July 28, CDC guidelines include universal masking for all students, teachers, and staff. SB 1303 was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the General Assembly earlier this year.

“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” Northam said. “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,” he said.

Seventy-three percent of all adults in Virginia have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

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

Children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive any available vaccination, which is one reason CDC updated its guidance to recommend universal masking in all K-12 schools. Masks are a proven tool to reduce in-school transmission, even in communities with high levels of spread, the agency said. 

“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,” said Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver. “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.”

The mask requirement isn’t the only step Northam has taken this week to improve the safety of K-12 schools in the face of COVID-19 and the delta variant.

On Tuesday, Northam signed House Bill 7001, which provides a total of $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.

In 2020, Northam directed $492 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to public schools and Pre-K-12 state-level education initiatives. 

This year, Virginia received approximately $939 million in ESSER II funds under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III funds directly allocate $1.9 billion to school divisions, with an additional state set aside of $211 million.

The Public Health Emergency Order is available here

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