Contributed photo - Staff members at Axton Elementary School check students' temperatures daily before entering the classroom. Staff Offer Temperature Checks As Kids Return
Contributed photo - Staff members at Axton Elementary School check students' temperatures daily before entering the classroom.

Already in the middle of summer classes, district and VDOE officials say the mask mandate remains in place until July 25.

RICHMOND-It’s a work in progress. That’s how officials from the Virginia Department of Education described the school mask mandate on Friday. Earlier in the day, the Centers for Disease Control released new guidelines, saying vaccinated students and teachers didn’t need to wear face masks for the upcoming fall semester. VDOE officials agree. But when it comes to summer classes, that’s a different story.

VDOE officials say they’ve read the guidelines and will be making some updates in the coming days. But for now, nothing changes. 

“The state health commissioner’s July 1 [order] continues to require all students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear a mask over their nose and mouth when students are present for instruction indoors on school property,” said Kevin Blackstone. He works as executive director for the office of communications at VDOE. 

That order from the state health commissioner runs through July 25. Blackstone said VDOE will work with the state health department to come up with revised guidelines for fall. 

“Our subject area of expertise is education,” Blackston said. “We will work closely with the Virginia Department of Health, the subject matter experts on health-related matters, to create health-related guidance.” 

The department of education has two priorities, Blackstone added. The first is to make sure all schools can open to in-person learning in the fall. Second, they want to make sure it’s done safely, without putting kids at risk. 

CDC Offers Vague Guidance 

The challenge here comes due to how the CDC guidelines came out. Yes, they said fully vaccinated teachers and students didn’t need masks. They also said anyone age 2 and older who’s not vaccinated should keep theirs on. And students should maintain a three foot distance between themselves and everyone else. But they didn’t provide any guidance on how that would work. 

It leaves Virginia school officials asking if they should just accept a teacher or student’s word that they’ve been vaccinated. If not, should they require vaccine cards? That’s how some universities like Virginia Tech are doing it. And who’s responsible for monitoring who’s vaccinated? Then there’s the 3-foot distancing rule. Districts could implement the 6-foot rule in the spring because fewer students showed up in person. For the fall, however, most districts say they expect nearly all students to attend. That makes spacing harder, especially in some of the state’s older school buildings. But beyond all that, there’s also a question of what happens to middle school classes. 

Only those 12 and older can get the vaccine. That means some middle school classes would potentially have half the students vaccinated and half not. Are you going to require the unvaccinated students to wear masks? If so, will that cause more headaches for teachers, as students complain and focus on who’s wearing masks, rather than the lesson? 

Before putting any of these guidelines in place, the VDOE staff realize they need answers to each of these questions. That’s one reason why the mask mandate stays in place for the rest of summer school. First and foremost, it’s to keep the kids safe. But also, it’s to prevent parent and student complaints from a rules change in the middle of the semester. 

What About Vaccinations?

There’s already some concern from parents about in-person classes with the Delta variant growing. As of July 9, the Virginia Health Dept. reported 88 cases. One of those involved a child under 10 this week, a kid who died from the virus. 

Even under an emergency basis, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines haven’t been tested enough to see what results they would have on young children. 

That won’t change anytime soon. Pfizer officials don’t expect to have a children’s version ready for CDC approval until at least September. Moderna doesn’t have an ETA when their version could be ready. 

With all of this still in flux, most school officials Dogwood contacted Friday said their district has a wait and see attitude. They’re not ready to promise a maskless fall, although they’re hopeful. 

“We hope to be maskless and are anxious to see guidance from the state,” said Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Public Schools. 

VDOE officials didn’t give a specific timeline for when that guidance will come, only saying it would be soon. 

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