Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richards was awaiting news from Gov. Ralph Northam Wednesday morning on whether students should wear masks in school this fall, but Richards had all but made his mind up on the matter — they will.
Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that it is OK for people who are fully vaccinated to be in school buildings without a mask, the American Academy of Pediatrics disagreed.
In the new guidance issued Wednesday, Northam’s administration urges but doesn’t require continued masking in many circumstances, The Associated Press reported.
With a statewide public health order that had mandated masking in schools coming to an end Sunday, school divisions will have the ability to implement local policies “based on community level conditions and public health recommendations,” the Democratic administration said in a news release, the AP reported.
There are a couple of points with the CDC guidance that make this sticky for school divisions, Richards said. For one, the vaccine is only available for students 12 and up. Middle schools are a mix of students above and below that cutoff.
And then there is the issue of an honor system. Do schools accept a student’s word that they are fully vaccinated? Do they ask for vaccination records?
“I’m uncomfortable with that,” Richards said of the honor system.
Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is not required for students to be in school, making asking for records for this particular vaccine complicated.
Guidance from the state on mask-wearing in schools includes the following highlights:
• Elementary schools should implement a requirement that students, teachers and staff wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccination is available for children younger than 12 years old and there has been sufficient time to allow for children younger than 12 to be fully vaccinated.
• At a minimum, middle and high schools should implement a requirement that students, teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated wear masks indoors. While school divisions regularly confirm school-required immunization records of students, they should consult with their counsel in determining if and how to confirm students and staff COVID-19 vaccinations.
• All schools may want to consider universal masking for specific reasons as outlined in certain circumstances by the CDC.
• All schools should be prepared to adjust local mask policies as local public health conditions evolve throughout the year.
Even before the announcement from Northam on Wednesday, which was in conjunction with the departments of Health and Education, Richards decided that given the complicated nature of the CDC guidance on masks, HCPS students will wear them while indoors this fall.
But it will be on a month-to-month basis. Currently, COVID-19 case numbers are going up again in Virginia, due in part to the delta variant and the Fourth of July holiday, Richards said.
This fall, the school division will watch those numbers, and in conjunction with guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, will evaluate mask-wearing indoors monthly.
“This guidance supports my current thinking that we’ll go with universal masks indoors but not outdoors, and we’ll reassess universal indoor masks after the first month of school,” Richards said.
Richards plans to discuss his plan with the School Board at its meeting on Aug. 3.