RICHMOND, Va. -- Starting next week, Virginia will let school divisions have the final say for COVID-19 precautions for the upcoming school year, including who should have to wear masks.
Wednesday, the Virginia departments of health and education released joint guidance on the precautions. They said that while divisions should consider community level conditions regarding the virus and public health recommendations in adopting their precautions, the two agencies said Virginia "strongly recommends" several policies including masks for everyone in elementary schools (regardless of vaccination status) and masks for unvaccinated people in middle and high schools.
On Thursday, after a tour of the VCU College of Health Professions where he was encouraging more Virginians to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Governor Ralph Northam spoke about his administrations decision to issue recommendations rather than requirements.
"One thing that we learned during COVID-19 is that one size doesn't fit all. There are different vaccination rates, different rates of individuals ending up in the hospital across Virginia. So, we expect, and I would hope, that everybody wants to do the right thing. And that is to keep people safe during COVID-19," said Northam. "So, we are empowering the different localities across Virginia, i.e. the school districts, to follow our guidelines and also to follow the data. And we can, you know, provide that through our health departments and then to make the right decision to keep individuals safe."
Northam also clarified that daycares and preschools should require masks for kids two years old and up.
"Kids do great. We see three and four-year-olds all the time, you tell them the best thing to do is wear masks. They put the mask on and continue with their activities," Northam said.
The majority of school districts CBS 6 spoke with said that they're reviewing the new guidelines. However, both Richmond and Hopewell said that they will require masks for everyone.
Hopewell begins year-round school next week. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jay McClain said that with roughly 90% of their students returning to in-person learning they wanted to err on the side of caution.
"That's really our priority. Get kids back in school and do it safely and then we can reevaluate where we are two or three weeks down the road and see if we're at a place where we might modify this policy," McClain said. "We feel that this is a health topic, but it's also one about trust and confidence with or community."
Meanwhile, some parents are already making their preferences regarding masks known. A Change.org petition with 44 signatures as of Thursday afternoon calls on Chesterfield County Public Schools to make masks optional.
Gillian Haynes, a parent of a rising seventh-grader in Hanover County, added that she wants masks to be optional, as well, regardless of vaccination status, not wanting her child to have to wear a mask or get the vaccine. However, she still has concerns leading into the academic year.
"If they decide to do optional, my concern is that they will segregate the kids. If they bring in the vaccine, they'll self-segregate them via vaccinated and unvaccinated or masked and unmasked," Haynes said.
Guidance from the state said that schools should not separate kids due to their vaccination or mask status.
Haynes said that the possibility of mask mandates has had her rethinking how her child will learn.
"I'm absolutely against mask mandates in school and seriously contemplating homeschooling my child to prevent her from being masked," Haynes said.
Meanwhile, Daisy Manning, a parent of a Dinwiddie County nine-year-old, said that she wants her son vaccinated when it is approved for his age group and supports masks at all levels.
"In closed spaces, I think so. And, you know, with children they have, you know, 30 plus kids in a room. I think they should wear a mask. Just to be safe and not bring it home and then outspread again. So I think that's smart," Manning said.
While local school districts will have a lot of decisions to make on this issue -- masks will still be required on school buses because of a federal mandate for them on public transport.