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Fairfax County schools evaluate new mask guidance, plan expected next week

Students read socially distanced in masks in Falls Church City Schools (courtesy Katie Heeter/FCCPS)

Virginia school districts will make their own rules regarding masking requirements for the upcoming school year, the state’s education and health departments announced today (Wednesday).

The Commonwealth will let a public health order that’s in effect until Sunday (July 25) expire, thereby ending a statewide mandate that kids over age 5 wear masks indoors at public and private schools and putting decisions in the hands of local officials.

“The science is clear that vaccinations and masks help keep our communities safe from COVID-19,” Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey said in a statement. “The Commonwealth’s children and the individuals that help them learn will be protected by proven strategies, without a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Fairfax County Public Schools currently requires masks to be worn indoors for students, staff, and visitors when school is in session “until more students aged 12 and older are fully vaccinated and until younger students become eligible for vaccination.”

“We are reviewing the guidance and reaching out to hear from our community, and will share a plan early next week with staff and families,” FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said in a statement.

Virginia’s new guidance says elementary schools should require students, teachers, and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccines are available for young children. For middle and high schools, it recommends that students, teachers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated be required to wear masks indoors.

State officials said the change will allow districts to make their own decisions and the switch reflects changes by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which loosened its guidance earlier this month and advised that masks should be worn indoors by all individuals age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, by contrast, recommends that, unless they are unable to do so due to medical or developmental challenges, all school staff and students over the age of 2 should wear masks at school, even if they’re vaccinated.

The changes come as daily COVID-19 cases have increased in Virginia and the U.S., and the especially contagious delta variant now represents 83% of new coronavirus cases in the U.S., according to a CDC estimate.

Over 70% of students ages 12 to 17 in Fairfax County have been vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines for those under the age of 12 are not yet authorized but currently undergoing trials.

The CDC has said that most students, including those with disabilities, can tolerate and safely wear a mask, but a “narrow subset of students with disabilities” may be unable to do so and should not be required to wear one.

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