FALLS CHURCH, VA — Falls Church City Public Schools approved a policy change that will allow students to opt out of wearing a mask in school after Feb. 14, or when COVID-19 transmission rates fall into the “moderate” range in the city based on data from the Virginia Department of Health — whichever comes first.
The new policy, approved by the city’s school board last Thursday, will require that parents complete a form to allow their children to attend Falls Church schools without a mask.
As parents consider the decision to opt out of the mask requirement for their children, Peter Noonan, the superintendent of schools, noted that Virginia remains in the “midst of an Omicron spike.”
“While there is potentially good news on the horizon, we are still experiencing very high transmission rates in the community,” Noonan said in a letter to the school community on Friday. “FCCPS had more than 30 positive cases in the last five days, which took hours of staff time to contact trace and make reporting calls. This took staff away from the essential work of teaching and learning.”
Falls Church City Public Schools is the only school division in Northern Virginia to announce a date when mask-wearing will become optional for students.
Despite the school system's decision to set a date when masks will become optional for students, the Falls Church City School Board joined six other school boards in Virginia in a lawsuit on Monday challenging an executive order on optional masking in schools issued by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
The school boards are challenging the constitutionality of the executive order, or whether school boards have the authority to enact local policies. The school districts collectively represent about 350,000 students in Virginia, led by Fairfax County Public Schools with over 178,000 students.
In his Jan. 21 letter to the Falls Church school community, Noonan emphasized that many children in the Falls Church school system have serious health conditions and are immunocompromised, which puts them at high risk for serious illness if they get infected by the virus.
The school district also has 500 staff members, some of whom are immunocompromised, who are transplant recipients, and who have underlying health conditions that disproportionately impact them.
“I ask you to remember that we are part of a bigger community of people and must look out for each other,” Noonan said.
When the opt-out period begins for wearing masks in schools, all students will still be required to wear a mask on a school bus. A federal requirement remains in place for the wearing of masks on public transit.
Also, the 3-to-6-foot school exemption for students as “close contacts” only applies when both students are fully masked. In the 3-to-6 foot contact situation when one student is unmasked, both students are considered close contacts and need to quarantine, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This means the masked student and the unmasked student are both subject to the appropriate quarantining guidelines based on their vaccination status. Vaccinated close contacts are not required to quarantine if they have no symptoms of illness,” Noonan said.
Parents can find the opt-out form on the front page of the FCCPS website under the COVID tab starting Jan. 26. Students will not be exempt from wearing a mask until the opt-out form is completed online, printed, and received by the school from a parent or guardian.
FCCPS will begin the collection of opt-out forms on Wednesday and request at least a 48-hour notice of opt-out so staff can prepare and add additional mitigation as needed.
Noonan asked parents to consider waiting until the COVID-19 transmission rates have improved before letting their children go unmasked to school, even if it is past Feb. 14.
“That will be the time to consider unmasking and … it is coming,” he wrote in the letter.