Masks will be recommended but not required in Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions starting March 1, when a new state law signed Wednesday goes into effect.
Superintendents for both school divisions emailed students, families and staff about the new law Wednesday evening. Masks will still be required on school buses in line with a federal requirement. Both superintendents strongly encouraged families to continue to wear masks.
The new law lets parents opt out of any mask requirement if their child is enrolled in a public school or school-based early childhood program. That law supersedes previous state laws and School Board policy.
“As mandated, the decision on whether a child will wear a mask in school will be made and enforced at home, not at school,” Albemarle superintendent Matt Haas wrote. “Students will not be questioned at school about this choice.”
Haas added that the division will work over the next 13 days to ensure a seamless transition to a mask-optional learning environment. Albemarle County will continue to provide masks upon request. No other mitigation measures are changing at this time.
“These practices have contributed to the health and safety of students and staff during the two years the pandemic has been present in our community,” Haas wrote.
Employees and visitors still will be required to wear a mask when inside school buildings for both divisions.
Last week, several parents and teachers urged the School Board to keep the mask requirement in place, though that was before Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the Senate bill.
Similarly, a group of Charlottesville parents have circulated an open letter committing to continued mask wearing, citing the fact children younger than 5 years old are not yet eligible for the vaccine and the need to protect other vulnerable community members.
In his message, Charlottesville schools superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. wrote that the school division is anticipating that most students will continue to wear masks at school, “based on the strong feedback in favor of masking that we’ve received.”
He also encourages families to choose to mask up at school.
“Although the numbers look better today than in January, our community transmission is still classified as ‘high’,” he wrote.
Additionally, wearing a mask is still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of the virus in schools. Wearing a mask also reduces the likelihood of quarantines and helps protect younger students, Gurley said.
He encouraged parents to talk to their children about wearing a mask.
“Although we’re still in this pandemic, it’s also important to take a moment for gratitude that the number of COVID cases in our schools is on the decline as the omicron surge passes,” Gurley wrote.
Haas said Thursday in a media briefing that the additional time to get ready for the change is helpful.
“We were able to have staff meetings and talk with our principals,” he said. “We developed a slide deck that they can use to talk to their teaching staff about how to approach this. When you’ve done anything for two years, change is going to be hard. And then when you have changes for some students and changes not happening for others, that’s going to be difficult as well.”
Youngkin added an emergency clause to the Senate bill so it would go into effect March 1. He told reporters in Richmond after the signing the bill that he hoped the new law would put an end to legal challenges over the issue, according to the Virginia Mercury.
A group of parents of students with disabilities, including two in Albemarle County, along with the ACLU of Virginia and other organizations have challenged Youngkin’s executive order blocking mask mandates in federal court. They recently filed a motion for a temporary injunction, and a hearing on that motion will be held Feb. 28 at the federal courthouse in Charlottesville.
The lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit are two Albemarle parents, Christopher Seaman and Elizabeth Allison Lyons, who have a third-grade son at Brownsville Elementary. The boy has acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the filing. Seaman and Lyons have spoken at recent School Board meetings about how mask requirement protects their child.
Eden Heilman, the legal director for ACLU of Virginia, said in a statement that the Senate bill has the same legal issues as the executive order.
“It strips from school districts the ability to provide accommodations for students with disabilities in accordance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. We will amend our complaint, as needed, to address the new law. But the substantive arguments in our complaint and temporary restraining order remain the same.”
Heilman said the case is neither about forcing a universal, permanent masking requirement upon school nor accommodating students whose disabilities do not allow them to wear masks.
“It’s about ensuring that schools can implement a coordinated public health response, as necessary, if the circumstances require it,” Heilman said. “It’s about ensuring that all students have access to a safe learning environment.”