Following state and federal guidance about mask requirements in schools, the Albemarle County school division is sticking with its current mask policy that requires all students, staff and visitors to wear one. The division is, however, giving families an additional week to decide whether to send their children back to school in-person.
Students attending in-person will go to school five days a week, starting Aug. 23. The division has launched an all-virtual school to accommodate families who aren’t comfortable with that option. Families who want to change their decision should contact their child’s principal, according to a Friday news release. No deadline was provided.
The county School Board is meeting next week and had been expected to discuss its mask policy at that meeting. Some parents have urged the division to drop the requirement. The division’s announcement Friday comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released additional data about the delta variant of COVID-19 that showed it was as transmissible as chickenpox.
Last week, the Virginia Department of Health encouraged but did not require that all elementary school students and staff members wear masks, leaving the final decision to local leaders. The state guidance also suggested that students in middle and high school who are unvaccinated be required to wear masks.
Under the division’s current policy, as revised July 8, masks are required of all students, staff and visitors in schools, offices and other school division facilities when students are present, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are not required during outdoor activities.
Earlier this week, the CDC said everyone in a school building should mask up. Previously, the agency had said anyone unvaccinated should wear a mask. The American Academy of Pediatrics also has recommended universal masking.
The COVID-19 vaccine is currently not available to children 11 and younger.
In the release, the division said the decision not to change the mask policy was based on recommendations from the Blue Ridge Health District and follows rising case counts related to the delta variant of COVID-19.
Case counts in Albemarle County and the broader Blue Ridge Health District dropped significantly in May and June as vaccination rates increased.
Yet, the health district reported 330 new cases this month. That’s far fewer than the winter surge but comes after 96 new cases were recorded in June. Albemarle County’s seven-day average of new daily cases hit zero July 8 and remained in the low single-digits for much of the month. But that metric has slowly ticked up to seven.
“The delta variant clearly is spreading in our community and a layered approach, including vaccinations, masks, social distancing and attention to symptoms, is essential to containing the spread and making it possible to resume normal activities as soon as possible,” said Ryan McKay, the COVID-19 incident commander for the health district, in the release.
The division remains confident in its mitigation strategies to limit the spread of the virus within its buildings. Those strategies include three feet of social distance between people, improved ventilation and masking.
“Continuing to wear masks makes it possible for us to meet our commitment to provide full in-person instruction to all of our students while protecting their health and that of our staff,” division COO Rosalyn Schmitt said in the release.
Schmitt added that the division is looking forward to the day when masks are not necessary.
“However, the data tells us, as do our public health experts, that that day is still not here,” she said. “We have seen the virus take sudden turns these past 16 months, and these latest developments only raise the importance of our protective measures.”
The division said a hopeful sign has been the vaccination rates among Albemarle teenagers.
Among 12 to 17-year-olds in the county, 68% are fully vaccinated, according to the VDH. Children who are vaccinated won’t be required to quarantine if they are exposed to someone who tests positive.
As of Friday, 72% of adults in Albemarle are fully vaccinated and 61% of those in Charlottesville are. In the entire health district, 56% of adults are fully vaccinated.