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Northam orders universal masking in Virginia schools

Northam: 'Virginia expects all school divisions to follow this public health measure'
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Posted at 1:57 PM, Aug 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-12 18:21:29-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver have issued a new public health order that mandates universal masking in all K-12 schools.

"We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe," Northam said in a statement. "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."

Oliver reiterated that "masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination."

"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," Oliver said.

State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said he was "grateful" for the order as it would "ensure uniformity across all school districts and keep students safely in their classrooms -- no matter where they live in Virginia."

"The vast majority of school districts have chosen to follow the CDC and keep their school communities safe," Lane wrote. "Universal masking has worked in school settings across Virginia for the past year and a half, and it remains a critical part of our safety protocols."

Watch CBS 6 News starting at 4 p.m. for complete coverage from reporter Cameron Thompson.

Health officials: As delta variant spreads, wear masks, get vaccinated

RELATED: How Virginia schools will handle COVID exposures, quarantines

Masks in school debate has seen multiple changes

The order comes as several school districts in the state, including Hanover County, have voted to make masks optional -- putting them at odds with the Governor's interpretation of a new state law regarding in-person learning.

It is the latest development on this issue that has seen multiple changes over the last month.

Back on July 25, Northam allowed a previous health order mandating masks for all in the K-12 setting to expire. Northam said he would leave the decision to each local school division on what preventative measures to have in place. The only exemption was that federal requirements meant masks were still mandatory on school buses.

The state did however recommend that each division follow the current CDC and VDH guidelines on the subject and require masks for all at the elementary school level and require them for those not fully vaccinated at the secondary school level.

The decision put the CDC and the Northam administration at odds with the American Academy of Pediatrics who said schools should maintain a universal mask mandate.

However, the very next week and just days after the previous health order expired, the CDC updated its guidance again and said that schools should, in fact, require universal masking and cited the surging Delta variant as the reason behind the decision. They also recommended people in places of substantial or high transmission where masks when in indoor public places, regardless of their vaccination status.

A few days after the updated guidance, Northam said he would not require, but recommend Virginians follow the CDC guidance on the indoor mask issue. He did not state what his intent was on the K-12 recommendation.

Then, at an Aug. 5 news conference, Northam stated that schools should be required to follow the CDC guidance and have a universal mask mandate. He said he did not need to issue a new order from the state level and instead said he based this opinion off of SB 1303, a bill that became law this past year. The bill requires schools to offer in-person school, but also states they should follow CDC guidance to "the maximum extent practicable".

Northam said he expected school divisions to follow the law and comply and if they didn't intend to, they should talk with their legal counsel.

Following that news conference, the majority of school divisions either revamped or announced policies to fall in line with a universal mask mandate, but others did not -- including Hanover County.

After the Hanover County vote this past Tuesday, Northam's spokesperson said "while the vast majority of school divisions have complied with the law, it's clear there are a few that need additional clarification. We plan to provide that shortly, and fully expect all school districts will do the right thing."

Responses to order mandating universal masking in schools

Virginia Education Association President James J. Fedderman:

"Today, Governor Northam announced a public health order requiring universal masking in K-12 schools.
We applaud this move. Wearing masks in schools right now is a commonsense precaution that will save lives.

"The Centers for Disease Control and state health officials are unanimous that keeping students and staff safe will require making vaccines available, masking, physical distancing, efficient ventilation, and other measures. All these are important—and masking up is a simple and responsible way for children and adults alike to slow community spread of COVID and keep Virginians out of hospital emergency rooms.

"VEA places the highest priority on the health and safety of students, their families and communities, and school staffs. We called in July for universal masking as back-to-school season was starting, and we demand that school divisions across the Commonwealth follow the Governor’s call.

"Everyone—students, parents, and members of the Virginia Education Association—wants a return to a normal school year with no disruptions in learning. By helping to make it possible for students to return to five days a week of in-person learning, masks are an essential tool."

Virginia House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert:

“Today’s statewide mandate is 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. Further, local school divisions are best equipped to make their own decisions on whether or not to require masks in schools. I urge the Northam administration to change course. Regardless, this mandate cannot and must not be a trial run for a new round of lockdowns. Virginia has only begun to recover from the last round of overly broad restrictions. We can keep Virginians safe without destroying their livelihoods.”

Terry McAuliffe, former Virginia governor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, spokesperson Renzo Olivari:

"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. He knows the only way we're going to end this pandemic and keep our economy strong is by getting every eligible Virginian vaccinated as quickly as possible. While Glenn Youngkin is taking leadership cues from Ron DeSantis' disastrous handling of the pandemic in Florida and even opposed funding for vaccine distribution, Terry is strongly encouraging every eligible Virginian to get the COVID-19 vaccine and has required his campaign staff do so.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin:

"With today's student mask mandate announcement, Ralph Northam, Terry McAuliffe and Richmond liberals have made clear that they will stop at nothing to impose their will and take away parents' ability to decide what's best for our kids. Make no mistake about it, this mask mandate is the first step towards returning to a full shutdown of our economy.

"We must respect parents’ right to decide what is best for their own children. If parents, teachers, and children want to wear a mask, they absolutely should do that, but there should not be a statewide school mask mandate.

"In addition to his opposition to statewide school mask mandates, Youngkin has repeatedly expressed his objection to vaccine passports and vaccine mandates. Youngkin has chosen to get the vaccine and believes that Virginians have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to get vaccinated based on their person circumstances."

Hanover County NAACP President Pat Hunter-Jordan:

"The Hanover NAACP is pleased with the action of Governor Northam's decision. We regret that our locally appointed school board would not take into consideration the health and safety of all of our students...

"We call on our Board of Supervisors to make better, more knowledgeable appointments to our school board. We require future appointments of people who are informed about the educational and health needs of our students.

"Our students need the support of people who believe in science and education."

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Mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Richmond Raceway.

Virginians age 12+ are eligible for COVID-19 vaccine. Pre-registration is no longer required, so go to Vaccine Finder to search for specific vaccines available near you or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-275-8343).

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for the most complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Have You Been Fully Vaccinated?

People are considered fully vaccinated:

  • 2 weeks after their second dose in a 2-dose series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or
  • 2 weeks after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine
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What you can and should not do once you have been fully vaccinated.

How to Protect Yourself and Others When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated

COVID-19 vaccines are effective at protecting you from getting sick. Based on what we know about COVID-19 vaccines, people who have been fully vaccinated can start to do some things that they had stopped doing because of the pandemic.

We’re still learning how vaccines will affect the spread of COVID-19. After you’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you should keep taking precautions—like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart from others, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces—in public places until we know more.

These recommendations can help you make decisions about daily activities after you are fully vaccinated. They are not intended for healthcare settings.

Click here for more information from the Virginia Department of Health.