A new Virginia law passed in February says that parents are entitled to make the decision about whether their children must wear masks in public schools, removing that power from state and local governments, agencies, and School Boards. The law permits “the parent of any child enrolled in a public elementary or secondary school, or in any school-based early childhood care and education program, to elect for such child to not wear a mask while on school property.” It also stipulates that parents are not required to give a reason for their decision and that students should not suffer adverse disciplinary or academic consequences as a result of their parents’ choice.
State Senate Democrat Chap Petersen sponsored the amendment supporting a parental right to decide on student masking on February 8, and it was adopted with bipartisan support in the Senate. The measure went on to pass in the House of Delegates and was signed into law by Governor Glenn Youngkin with an effective date of March 1. State Senator Creigh Deeds, whose district includes Crozet and Charlottesville, voted against the bill.
“Nobody knows what the next variant of this pandemic is going to produce. Nobody knows what the next pandemic is going to produce,” said Deeds. “But we’re putting language in the code … that’s going to say that our school boards cannot make decisions about how best to respect the health of their students.” The House of Delegates representative for Crozet, Chris Runion, voted in favor of the bill.
Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) issued a statement on February 16 acknowledging the law and the school division’s intent to comply with its provisions. “As mandated, the decision on whether a child will wear a mask in school will be made and enforced at home, not at school. Students will not be questioned at school about this choice,” read the statement. The division also noted that masking will still be required for students who are riding school buses (per federal law), for all school employees including teachers, and for any visitors to schools and division facilities.
ACPS said it will still “strongly encourage” students to wear masks as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The statement also said that “[t]his new state law does not impact our other mitigation strategies, such as the isolation of students who test positive for the virus and the quarantining of students who are identified as close contacts.” Close contact is defined as being within six feet of an infected person for 15 or more minutes.
Although current CDC guidelines call for a five-day quarantine for unvaccinated people who have close contact with a COVID-19-infected person (and no quarantine at all if vaccinated and asymptomatic), ACPS continues to require a ten-day quarantine for any student who has had close contact.
Kathryn Goodman, Director of Communications for the Blue Ridge Health District, said that “[w]hile the Virginia Department of Health and BRHD continue to recommend (not require) the use of masks in indoor settings due to high rates of disease transmission in all of Virginia, the public health order mandating the use of masks in K-12 settings was rescinded. Masks are only required on school buses and other forms of public transportation, per federal law.”
Two large pediatric medical practices in Charlottesville and Crozet—Piedmont Pediatrics and Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville—have posted a joint statement on social media in support of continuing masking for all students. “Universal masking in schools must continue as part of a layered mitigation protocol, protecting all our children, teachers, and school staff, in addition to families and the broader community, and keeping schools open for in-person learning,” read the statement. A post accompanying the statement added that “[w]e know that masks are not harmful to children and that masks are incredibly effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19,” and exhorted community members to “please listen to the science.”
In contrast with the near-uniform recommendation of continued mask-wearing for all Albemarle County students, some local pediatricians question the idea that prolonged mask-wearing for children is risk-free. Dr. Eliza Holland is a pediatric hospitalist who cares for patients admitted to UVA Children’s Hospital and who has worked with local schools and camps to implement COVID-19 protocols over the last two years. “We need to look at the effects of policies such as masking on children, not just from a health point of view but also from a social, emotional, and educational viewpoint,” said Holland. “We’re now realizing that our children have been carrying a very heavy burden for the past two years, and it has not been without costs.”
Holland is one of a national group of physicians and scientists who have formed an all-volunteer organization called the Urgency of Normal, which launched in January and advocates for maintaining in-person learning, de-escalating the fear around getting Covid, and appropriately balancing the risks to children’s health. “Right now, we are seeing a mental health crisis in our children, which was already bad and has only gotten worse during the pandemic,” said Holland. “I have admitted far more children with severe eating disorders, suicidal ideation, and drug overdose than I have with severe Covid.”
The Urgency of Normal’s summary of the evidence to date on student masking efficacy says that “[w]ell-controlled, real-world studies have not demonstrated any clear benefit of masking students.” While a widely circulated CDC study found a higher Covid incidence among students in Georgia schools that did not require masks, the difference was found to be not statistically significant. Other studies did not control for important confounding variables such as vaccination rates among students. “When an intervention’s real-world benefits are too small to measure, we should feel comfortable ending its use,” concludes the summary.
On the other side of the ledger, Holland notes that masking creates real impediments. “Masking makes it hard to understand each other and one’s teacher, and difficult for children with speech issues to be understood,” she said. “It’s harder for children for whom English is a second language to communicate, and children with special needs who can’t comply with mask mandates are being left out of the school environment.”
Holland said she has observed that children have been taught to feel unsafe without a mask, and that those anxieties may take a longer-term toll. “The health messaging has been lacking in nuance, and the risk stratification has not been well portrayed,” she said. “Unvaccinated children are still at much lower risk of severe disease and hospitalization than vaccinated adults.” As well, transmission rates among children are much lower than among adults, according to CDC data.
“Children are treated as if they are horrible spreaders, and they are the ones who must continue to mask as if they are a threat to everyone around them,” even as adults are allowed to unmask, said Holland. “As some of my colleagues have said, the impact on the mental, social, emotional, and behavioral health of our children can’t be measured by a PCR [test],” said Holland. “We are so laser-focused on the burden of disease, but the burden of the mitigation measures is high.”