Virginia’s new school COVID-19 guidance keeps most safety decisions in the hands of local districts

Here’s what to expect as divisions reopen this fall

By: - July 21, 2021 5:19 pm

A school bus in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Masks, social distancing and screening should continue to play an outsized role in the upcoming school year, according to new safety guidelines released Wednesday by the Virginia Departments of Education and Health. 

This year, though, state lawmakers have given local divisions much less leeway to go fully remote, citing growing mental health concerns among children and increasing evidence that long-term closures have disproportionately affected some of the state’s most vulnerable learners. But a continued emphasis on local control means that mitigation policies will likely vary from district to district — potentially sparking the same safety debates that embroiled many divisions last fall.

Virginia’s recommendations largely mirror advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued its own sweeping guidance for K-12 schools earlier this month. Both arrived amid a faltering nationwide vaccination campaign and growing concern over the highly infectious Delta variant, which is overwhelming states with low vaccination rates. 

Preventing in-school spread while maintaining face-to-face instruction will be a tricky balance for many Virginia school divisions, particularly in areas where immunization has largely stalled. The state’s guidelines urge administrators to factor in local transmission rates, vaccination levels and student infections in their prevention strategies, which are developed and approved at the local level. 

Here are some of the main guidelines schools will be considering:

In-person learning isn’t an option

In February, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bipartisan bill mandating local school divisions begin providing in-person instruction by July 1. Schools are permitted to close temporarily in cases of high transmission, but otherwise must provide face-to-face learning for “each student” enrolled in the division, according to the language of the bill.

As a result, the upcoming semester will look dramatically different from last year, when reopening differed significantly by region. Most schools in Southwestern Virginia, for example, reopened fully in August, while some divisions — including Richmond and Fairfax — stayed closed for most of the academic year. Others conducted a mix of in-person and virtual education.

The state’s new guidelines say “safely returning to and maintaining in-person instruction in the 2021-22 school year is a priority.” Administrators aren’t required to implement every one of the recommended mitigation measures, particularly in cases in which they could make it harder to re-open in person, such as maintaining three to six feet of distance between students. But they are asked to layer as many strategies as possible, considering factors like school-level vaccination rates.

Like the CDC, though, Virginia isn’t offering suggestions on how schools should check vaccination status. “While school divisions regularly confirm school-required immunization records of their students, they should consult with their counsel in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations,” the state Department of Education said in a news release.

Mask use could vary by age and locality 

A vaccine for children under 12 might not be available until later this fall or winter, prompting Virginia to recommend universal mask use for both pre-K and elementary school students. The move was immediately criticized by some Republican lawmakers, with House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert describing it as “an especially cruel requirement for young children.”

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

VDOE’s recommendations left decision-making in the hands of local administrators, meaning that mask use isn’t a requirement for any division. That will likely lead to varying policy decisions across the state, sparking some criticism that state officials are dumping contentious safety debates into the hands of local school boards. Last fall, some administrators complained they were “hung out to dry” when the state left reopening decisions with individual school divisions. 

The agency is also recommending mask use in middle and high schools for unvaccinated students and faculty “at a minimum.” The guidance is stronger for unvaccinated athletes, who should “wear masks at all times such as during group training, competition, in locker rooms and on the sidelines.”

“This is particularly important for activities indoors and for high-contact activities,” the department continued. 

The only place where masks will be required is on school buses, due to a still-current federal order mandating masks on public transportation.

Testing could become more common

In April, Virginia joined a handful of states in offering COVID-19 testing to K-12 schools. Those resources will be more widely available this year. VDH and VDOE partnered to establish the Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance program, which provides “vendors, supplies, and staffing” for pooled testing in participating districts.

Schools aren’t required to participate, but both agencies are doubling down on testing recommendations in the latest set of guidelines. According to the guidance, screening testing — or checking for the virus even when no symptoms are present — should be offered to unvaccinated students when community transmission is moderate, substantial or high. It also recommends screening for unvaccinated staff regardless of local transmission levels.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.