State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver speaks at a press conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration announced a new new health order Thursday making masks mandatory in all public and private K-12 school buildings, effectively overruling local school districts that were planning to make face coverings optional.
The new order from state Health Commissioner Norm Oliver, a Northam appointee, adds more clarity to what had been a mix of local mask policies, sending a clear message to reluctant school boards that they must follow updated mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The order allows exemptions for religious and medical reasons. Masks can also be taken off while eating, drinking, sleeping, exercising or playing some musical instruments. The mandate applies to anyone 2 or older.
Many school divisions have already chosen to require masks. But several school boards, some of them dealing with crowds of upset parents who argue they should decide whether their child is masked or not, have chosen not to impose the type of mandates strongly encouraged by health experts.
Thursday’s order marks the latest turn in the Northam administration’s evolving response to rules on school reopenings.
In July, the administration said localities could decide for themselves.
After the CDC updated its guidance in August in response to the rise of the delta variant, Northam said localities must comply with a bipartisan state law the General Assembly approved earlier this year that required schools to reopen while directing school leaders to follow CDC guidelines to hold in-person classes safely. After that announcement, Republicans accused Northam of trying to avoid responsibility for a more explicit mask mandate.
This week, the governor’s office said it was becoming clear some school leaders needed “additional clarification.”
“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,” Northam said in a news release.
The order will remain in effect until the CDC changes its guidelines or state officials decide to modify it.
Virginia Republicans have largely opposed mask mandates in schools.
In a statement after Northam’s announcement, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, called the move “a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense.”
“The idea of keeping masks on two-year-olds is the kind of thing that could only have been thought up by someone who has never dealt with a two-year-old,” Gilbert said, adding the decision should have been left to local leaders.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin also decried the mandate.
“We must respect parents’ right to decide what is best for their own children,” Youngkin said in a news release Thursday afternoon.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, issued a statement supporting Northam’s mask mandate.
“Terry believes we have to do everything we can to keep our children safe while they return to schools in-person this fall, and he believes everyone should follow CDC guidelines in wearing masks and getting vaccinated,” McAuliffe spokesman Renzo Olivari said in a news release.
The Virginia Education Association, a statewide advocacy group for teachers and school staff, aslo applauded the decision.
“Wearing masks in schools right now is a commonsense precaution that will save lives,” said VEA President James Fedderman.
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