Gov. Northam: State law requires public school districts to require universal masking

Law requires adherence to current CDC guidance
Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 6:42 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 6, 2021 at 5:30 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said school districts with no plans to require masks when kids go back this fall should prepare for a legal battle.

On Thursday, Northam announced that a law passed earlier this year by the General Assembly will impact how schools handle masking this fall.

The law not only requires in-person learning options at all public school districts this fall but also requires school systems to follow “any currently applicable mitigation strategies...to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the CDC.”

The most recent update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came last week, with health officials recommending universal masking in schools.

“CDC recommends everyone in K-12 schools wear a mask indoors including teachers, staff, students and visitors - regardless of vaccination status,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.

The CDC only ever issues recommendations. According to the governor’s office, the law says schools have to adhere to “mitigation strategies that have been provided by CDC,” and according to their latest guidance, that’s universal masking.

“That law was passed by a strong bipartisan vote of the legislature, and I expect school divisions to follow it. If they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel,” Northam said.

Virginia’s Secretary of Education was expected to send letters to superintendents by end of the day, detailing the law and saying that actions will be monitored. If school districts don’t comply by requiring masks, legal action could follow.

“The CDC guidance is people in schools need to be wearing masks,” Northam said.

However, state Republicans are firing back.

“CDC guidelines does not mean the government needs to intercede and tell people what to do,” said Virginia Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, (R) 12th District.

Dunnavant pushed the law, but she says not with the intention of requiring masks in school.

“The wording actually says follow the CDC guidelines as practicable ... masks are an obstacle for some children. I can’t tell you how many parents and how many patients have come in and told me the anxiety their children have about masks,” said Dunnavant, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist.

On Friday, House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said Northam was “hiding behind a false interpretation of the law” instead of “simply announcing that he will require masking” in schools.

Previously, Henrico Schools said students and teachers would have the choice. Thursday, a spokesperson said that was before the recent CDC recommendation and the rise in community transmission. The updated guidance, the district said, will come before the school board when it meets again in a week.

“So school boards that decided to make this optional, your decision-making process wasn’t good enough. Now, you’re going to have to get legal counsel involved,” Dunnavant said.

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