RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new public health order in Virginia will require all students and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
The new order from State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver was announced on Thursday and it will take effect immediately. It will remain in place until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for schools change, unless the order is amended or rescinded sooner.
The order applies to public and private schools, according to state officials.
This news comes after several divisions announced plans to make face coverings optional, even though Gov. Ralph Northam said last week that
Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said that the new order is meant to provide clarification for school boards who haven’t already complied.
“We all share the same goal of keeping our schools open and keeping our students safe,” said Governor Northam in a press release. “That’s why the General Assembly passed this law with overwhelming bipartisan support. This Public Health Order makes it very clear that masks are required in all indoor K-12 settings, and Virginia expects all schools to comply.”
Northam’s assertion was immediately disputed by some Republican lawmakers who said the law left room for local discretion.
“Governor Northam’s announcement today makes it clear that he was not telling the truth in his attempt to impose a mask mandate last Thursday when he falsely claimed ‘the legislature made me do it,'” Senate Republican leaders said in a joint statement.
The order includes some exceptions to the universal mask requirement indoors, including while eating, drinking, exercising, playing certain instruments and when necessary to participate in a religious ritual.
People with health conditions and disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask are also exempt from the rule.
The order furthers that any person who declines to wear a mask because of a medical condition or due to a “sincerely held religious objection to wearing masks in school” may request a “reasonable accommodation.”
Asked how the exemption process would be implemented in an interview on Thursday, Virginia’s Deputy Commissioner of Population Health Dr. Laurie Forlano said the state is leaving it up to localities.
“This order does not require schools to require documentation for a medical exemption but it also doesn’t prevent a school from requiring documentation,” Forlano said.
That’s a change from a previous public health order that expired on July 25, which stated, “Any person who declines to wear a mask because of a medical condition shall not be required to produce or carry medical documentation verifying the stated condition, nor shall the person be required to identify the precise underlying medical condition.”
8News Legal Analyst Russ Stone said individuals who violate a public health order can be charged with a Class One Misdemeanor, which carriers a maximum penalty of 12 months behind bars and a $2,500 fine.
Stone said, if a school board were to refuse to comply, they could possibly face fines or the loss of certifications or licensure.
“It will be interesting to see whether any particular school system wants to ignore the order,” Stone said. “That certainly could be a mess for teachers and students. I frankly doubt that they will deliberately violate it.”
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert urged Northam to change course and allow localities to have the final say over mask policies in a statement on Thursday.
“Today’s statewide mandate is a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense. The idea of keeping masks on two-year-olds is the kind of thing that could only have been thought up by someone who has never dealt with a two-year-old,” Gilbert said.
In a statement, State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said the vast majority of school districts have already chosen to follow the CDC.
“Universal masking has worked in school settings across Virginia for the past year and a half, and it remains a critical part of our safety protocols,” Lane said.
The order also won the endorsement of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
“Everyone–students, parents, and members of the Virginia Education Association–want to return to a normal school year with no disruptions in learning. By helping to make it possible for students to return to five days a week of in-person learning, masks are an essential tool,” said VEA President James J. Fedderman.