RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia is releasing new guidance for PreK-12 schools ahead of the 2021-2022 academic year. The recommendations announced by the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education on Wednesday mark a major shift in the state’s school mask policy.

Currently, all students and staff statewide are required to wear a mask while indoors at school with limited exceptions.

Starting July 26th, after the State Health Commissioner’s Public Health Order expires, school divisions will have the authority to implement local mask policies based on public health recommendations and community conditions. 

The new guidelines “strongly recommend” divisions maintain indoor mask requirements in elementary schools for students, teachers and staff —regardless of vaccination status— until children under 12 are eligible for the shots and have time to get fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, a federal order mandating masks on public transportation remains in effect. VDH says this applies to buses operated by Virginia public schools. 

When it comes to middle and high schools, the state is encouraging localities to continue mask requirements for those who aren’t fully vaccinated “at a minimum.”

However, under these new recommendations, nothing is stopping localities from making masks optional for all students and staff.

Asked if VDH is concerned about a patchwork of local policies, Deputy Commissioner of Population Health Dr. Laurie Forlano said, “We have confidence that everyone shares the goal of keeping kids and teachers safe and we would hope that local decision-makers read the guidance closely and incorporate it into their policies. I do expect there will be variability.” 

The enforcement of mask policies has caused confusion elsewhere as states shift to meet new CDC recommendations. The agency gave fully vaccinated students and staff the green light to take face coverings off more than a week ago.

VDH and VDOE are passing the buck to localities on implementation details.

“While school divisions regularly confirm school-required immunization records of their students, they should consult with their counsel in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations,” the press release said.

“There is some legal complexity there,” Forlano added.

The CDC has said that all schools may want to consider universal masking for certain reasons, including difficulty with enforcement or in response to a surge in cases.

Going further than the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that schools maintain universal mask mandates for children older than two, regardless of vaccination status, in large part due to logistical concerns.

“I think the AAP has taken that one step further because of how challenging it might be to have a mixed classroom of 11-12 year-olds on who is in a mask and who is not, the logistical challenges of keeping up to date with everyone’s vaccination status and again, knowing that a lot of kids in the school won’t be able to get vaccinated,” Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, a general pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, said.

In a statement, the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, endorsed the AAP’s recommendation and called for continued masking in schools.

“All adults and children above the age of two should wear masks in school buildings and during school activities. School divisions must provide adequate space and ventilation for everyone to study and to do their jobs safely,” VEA President James J. Fedderman said.

In a statement, Gov. Ralph Northam encouraged people to get vaccinated and said his Administration is continuing to follow the science. “This guidance takes into consideration recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and will provide necessary flexibility for school divisions while ensuring a safe, healthy, and world-class learning environment for Virginia’s students,” the statement continued.

However, the new recommendations are already getting push back from House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert. In a statement, he said his party will attempt to take legislative action against any kind of mask mandate in schools during a special session starting August 2nd.

Those comments come as some Republican-led states have already banned localities from imposing mask requirements.

“It is inconsistent with science, passes the buck to local school divisions, will spark mass confusion, and will make it more difficult as our students return to the classroom this fall,” Gilbert said. “It’s an especially cruel requirement for young children, and will only make it more difficult for our teachers to inspire a love of learning in students.”

Last session, Republicans led what became a bipartisan push to require localities to offer in-person learning full-time. That law, which took effect on July 1, permits schools to switch back to partial or fully virtual instruction temporarily if COVID-19 transmissions levels are deemed to be at a high level in collaboration with the local health department.

That said, Forlano said new federal and state guidelines put a clear emphasis on maintaining in-person learning. For example, VDH’s press release specifies that physical distancing of at least 3 feet “should be maximized to the greatest extent possible but schools should not reduce in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.”

“I think the whole scientific community is acknowledging that closing school is not harmless and we want to make those environments as safe as possible,” Forlano said.