Va. keeps mask mandate in K-12 schools with exceptions for some sports fans, outdoor recess

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- While Virginia’s universal indoor mask mandate has ended, face coverings are still being required in K-12 schools, except in certain circumstances like socially-distant outdoor recess.

On Monday evening, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office further clarified that the updated order allows spectators at outdoor school sports to go without a mask if they are fully vaccinated. Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s spokesperson, said fans who are not vaccinated should still wear a face covering in accordance with new CDC guidance at outdoor school events, though it’s not technically required.

“Indoors on school property, everyone wears a mask,” Yarmosky followed up in a text.

The Virginia High School League had been seeking clarity on the question since Northam’s revised order seemed to contain contradictory messages about how spectators should be handled, according to VHSL Spokesperson Mike McCall. McCall said student athletes and coaches will continue to be subject to masking and social distancing requirements on the sidelines.

Northam announced a slew of changes to Virginia’s long-standing mask rules on Friday afternoon in a video message, rather than a press conference.

The shift came in response to what many considered an abrupt announcement from the CDC that left state and local leaders scrambling to adjust their messaging and public health orders.

Yarmosky told 8News in a phone call last week that Northam was not briefed before the CDC’s revised recommendations were released on Thursday.

The CDC clarified over the weekend that schools should continue using masks at least through the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic year and noted that guidance for the fall would be released in the coming weeks.

Northam’s new order, which took effect over the weekend, said fully vaccinated Virginians can take their mask off in most settings–indoors and outdoors–two weeks after their final shot. Unvaccinated people are encouraged–but not required–to continue wearing a face covering.

Regardless of immunization status, people still have to wear masks while in a businesses that requires them, healthcare settings, jails, homeless shelters and while using public transportation, according to Northam.

The order further advises that “all students, teachers, staff, and visitors must wear a mask over their nose and mouth while on school property,” though exceptions are allowed during meals, exercise and for students with certain disabilities and medical conditions.

The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, was supportive of the decision to maintain a mask mandate in K-12 schools, since students ages 11 and under still aren’t eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Predictions are that younger students may not even be eligible until this fall or winter,” said VEA President Dr. James J. Fedderman. “We believe the CDC should reaffirm the need for safety measures in schools, including masks, at least until vaccines are available for everyone.”

Republican leadership in the Virginia State Senate were quick to push back on Friday. In a statement on Monday, they repeated calls for Northam to remove all remaining COVID-19 restrictions.

“It is time to rely on the judgment and common sense of the people of Virginia and not the state-imposed force of Governor Northam’s edicts and mandates,” the statement said.

Chesterfield mother of two Taryn Brennan echoed that sentiment. While Brennan hasn’t ruled out getting her fourth-and-seventh-grade sons vaccinated eventually, she said she is in no rush and she doesn’t think they should be required to wear a mask in the meantime.

“It should not be a mandate. It should be the choice of the parent,” Brennan said. “I’m 100 percent sure I would send them with no mask.” 

In some states, wearing a mask is already optional in schools. Certain districts are now allowing parents to opt out by signing a form.

Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, said mask mandates in school are necessary to protect kids and their communities.

“While kids are at lower risk, it’s not zero risk,” Kimbrough said.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 3,903,706 total child COVID-19 cases have been reported and between 0.1%-1.9% of all cases in kids resulted in hospitalization.

However, Kimbrough said it would be reasonable for schools to allow students to put the face coverings aside during outdoor recess.

“If kids are otherwise coming to school healthy and the school is otherwise following their infection control measures, then unmasking during recess time when kids are generally spread out a little more is an acceptable option for schools to take,” Kimbrough said.

In an email, Northam’s office clarified that this is allowed under the state’s mask rules. “Specific K-12 guidance always noted that masking was required in line with exceptions provided in the executive orders (ie, for exercise or outside when socially distant),” Yarmosky said.

That wasn’t abundantly clear when Northam spoke about this in a press conference less than two weeks ago, though he didn’t specifically reject the idea.

The governor was asked to respond to a decision by Fauquier County Public Schools to allow students and staff to remove masks while participating in socially distant outdoor activities like gym class, recess and athletic practices.

“The first thing we have to remember is children have not been vaccinated…anytime where children are gathered, whether it be indoors and outdoors…and they are in close proximity to each other they are at risk,” Northam said during May 6 press conference. “We’ll continue to follow the CDC guidelines.”

Meanwhile, Bristol City Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Perrigan said they’ve been allowing students to unmask at recess at least for the entire spring. Perrigan said they didn’t seek specific, prior approval from the state before doing so.

“That was a local interpretation…we probably were not in compliance,” Perrigan said. “Not being in compliance, it was not purposeful but we have not had any adverse effects. Our students have been safe. We have had no transmission at our elementary schools.”

Moving forward, Northam generally plans to follow the CDC guidelines for masking in schools. 8News asked his office whether high schools may be able to drop mandates sooner, since teens are already eligible for the vaccine.

“We will follow the CDC’s recommendation in keeping K-12 school guidance as is for the time being. It’s important to note that 12-15 year olds have only been eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for less than a week, and it can take up to 6 weeks to become fully vaccinated,” Yarmosky said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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