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State defers to localities on masking for schools

Local school divisions will be responsible for their own masking and social distancing policies to deal with COVID-19, after the state departments of health and education deferred on issuing their own.

The interim guidance for COVID-19 prevention in Virginia pre-K through 12th-grade schools stresses the importance of in-person learning and said it would support school divisions as they make decisions on having students and staff wear masks and taking other precautions.

They said in a statement Wednesday that school divisions should be informed by local COVID-19 data and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This guidance takes into consideration recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics,” said Gov. Ralph Northam in a statement, “and will provide necessary flexibility for school divisions while ensuring a safe, healthy, and world-class learning environment for Virginia’s students.”

The public health order issued by state health commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver allowing school divisions to require masks and other social distancing policies will expire July 25 and will not be extended.

School divisions are required to offer in-person learning for five days per week for the upcoming school year, and provide at least three feet of physical distancing “to the greatest extent possible,” but the state guidance states that shouldn’t be a barrier to offer in-person learning. Suffolk Public Schools is also offering a virtual learning option for students this year.

The state departments of health and education “strongly recommends” the following measures for the upcoming school year:

  • Elementary school students, teachers and staff should be required to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status until vaccines are available for children under 12 years old and there has been enough time for them to be fully vaccinated.
  • Middle and high school students, teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors. Though school divisions regularly confirm school-required immunization records of their students, they should consult with their attorneys in determining if and how to confirm student and staff COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • School divisions may want to consider universal masking for specific reasons, as outlined in certain circumstances by the CDC, and should plan to adjust local mask policies as local public health conditions change throughout the year.
  • The CDC’s federal order requiring masks to be worn on public transportation is still in effect, and applies to public school buses in Virginia.

There have been no COVID-19 cases reported by SPS since the week of June 7 through June 13, though the 7-day positivity rate for COVID-19 has been steadily increasing over the past few weeks and is, as of July 21, 6.76%. The number of new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days is 66.9.

The school division has hosted two rounds of vaccine clinics at schools since June — held at Lakeland, King’s Fork and Nansemond River high schools June 22-24, and another set that was held July 13-15 at King’s Fork Middle School, King’s Fork High School and John F. Kennedy Middle School.

Among those ages 12 to 15 in Suffolk, 1,387 people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 1,088 have been fully vaccinated. Those fully vaccinated in this age group represent 21.5% of that age group’s population in the city.

In the 16-17 age group in the city, 1,004 have received at least one dose and 839 have been fully vaccinated. Those fully vaccinated in this age group make up 34.6% of people in the city.

The percentage of those under 18 in the city fully vaccinated is 25.7%, while it is 50.8% for those 18 and up and 78% for residents in the city 65 and up.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said second-dose vaccinations will take place for students, but the division has no current plans to add more clinics until a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12 is ready.

“Of course our numbers this go around wasn’t as high as they were the first time,” Gordon said of student vaccinations. “It’s all about the opportunity, and we just want to try and make sure that we get as many people — staff members, parents, students that are 12 and up — give them that opportunity. And we make our schools the hub for a lot of the things that we do. And we’re waiting for those vaccinations to come out for those kids who are … 11 and younger.”

He did not expect that to happen until at least the last quarter of the 2021-2022 school year.

“We’re just trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Gordon said.

Nearly 1,000 SPS staff members received the COVID-19 vaccine when it was offered in late January and early February for the two doses.

“The science is clear that vaccinations and masks help keep our communities safe from COVID-19,” said Dr. Daniel Carey, secretary of health and human resources in a statement. “Due to the dedication, expertise, and close partnership of the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education, the Commonwealth’s children and the individuals that help them learn will be protected by proven strategies, without a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Oliver said everyone needs to do whatever possible to keep everyone safe in school, and the guidance is designed to provide localities with flexibility given COVID-19 metrics where they are.

State Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said the guidance should provide support for school divisions, and Superintendent for Public Instruction Dr. James Lane said the state’s priority is to provide safe, in-person instruction.

“With this latest guidance and ample federal pandemic relief funds available to school divisions,” Lane said, “our local school leaders are equipped to implement appropriate mitigation strategies and ensure student and staff safety within the schools in their communities.”

Northam directed $492 million in CARES Act money in 2020 to go to public schools and pre-K through 12 state-level education initiatives. The state received about $939 million in ESSER II funds under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, 90% of which was given to school divisions in January, with the other 10% held in reserve for state-level initiatives. American Rescue Plan Act Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief money directly provides $1.9 million to school divisions, with the state setting aside an additional $211 million.

Northam also announced earlier this year $62.7 million in education recovery grants for school divisions for targeted initiatives to deal with impacts from the coronavirus pandemic.