After months of refusing even to consider loosening mask mandates in its facilities, the leadership of Arlington Public Schools on Feb. 28 threw in the towel – at least for the time being.
The trigger was the Feb. 25 reversal by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which changed its COVID rules and suddenly eliminated its previous indoor-masking recommendations for much of the nation, including Northern Virginia.
Virginia school systems already had been under a March 1 deadline to adhere to new state law requiring mask freedom of choice among students, but the CDC recommendation led most local school districts, including Arlington, to go several steps further.
“APS will continue following the CDC’s guidance for operating safely to allow everyone – students, families, staff and visitors – to decide whether they will wear a mask at school and on the school bus. There is no opt-out form required,” Superintendent Francisco Durán said in a message to the school community.
Had they wished to continue a mask mandate, school officials would have been open to charges of hypocrisy, as they had used the mantra “following the science” to defend their masking stance for months. “The science” – at least as promulgated by the CDC, and arguably as much for political as public-health concerns – suddenly is looking at COVID as something to be lived with, rather than something to be locked down against.
The CDC’s new model to evaluate communities focuses much more on deaths and serious illness and less on its previous reliance on community-transmission numbers, which since the onset of the omicron variant had kept much of Northern Virginia buttoned up in the high-risk category. Under the new standards, almost all of Northern Virginia is deemed at low-risk; Falls Church remains at moderate risk.
In his message to parents, Durán noted that mask requirements could come back if the situation changes and if Arlington bumps into a higher-risk category.
APS’s revised policy also applies to school buses, where masks will no longer be required.
How much real-world impact the change will have remains to be seen. There appears to be a significant percentage of Northern Virginia parents who seem to want their children to remain masked-up indefinitely. There also has been significant pushback against loosening masking rules from some teacher organizations.
But the tide against masking began to gather steam at the national level about a month ago, as even some Democratic governors (perhaps sensing rising political risks from maintaining increasingly unpopular government mandates) started shifting their stances.
The CDC’s change of heart came just a few days before President Biden was set to deliver his State of the Union address, although public-health matters have been subsumed at least for the near term by blanket media coverage of the Russia-Ukraine contretemps.
Virginia was somewhat in the vanguard of the mask-freedom brigade. Gov. Youngkin in his first days in office issued an executive order requiring that school districts abandon their mask mandates; Northern Virginia school districts promptly sued the governor, even if they didn’t really seem to have their heart in the fight. Each side won a round or two in the initial legal skirmishes, with an Arlington judge putting the governor’s order on hold while a Loudoun judge effectively ordered an end to student-mask requirements in that county.
The legislature then passed a measure essentially codifying Youngkin’s desires into law, with a few Democrats in the state Senate joining to push the measure to passage.
In response to the legislature’s action (but before the CDC changes), Durán announced he would require any student who wished to go maskless to file paperwork to do so, which while adhering to the letter of the new law seemed a tad resistant to its intent. With the CDC ruling, school officials abandoned even that effort.
In some ways, the CDC’s recommendations on student masking have been an outlier; the World Health Organization and health agencies in many nations have voiced concerns about the implications (on physical and mental health) of having students masked up all day.