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BREAKING: Masks optional at Arlington Public Schools as of March 1

(Updated at 4:10 p.m.) Arlington Public Schools is effectively repealing its mask mandate for all students and staff.

The move, which takes effect tomorrow (March 1), responds to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which was released on Friday. No opt-out form is required for those who do not wish to wear masks.

The CDC changed how it measures the severity of Covid at the local level and relaxed its masking guidelines. Now, it advises most Americans to wear a mask only when Covid-related hospitalization rates are high so as not to overwhelm hospitals. When that rate is low or moderate — it’s currently low in Arlington County, according to the CDC — people can forego face coverings.

More from a School Talk email sent to APS families this afternoon:

Dear APS Staff and Families,

On Friday evening, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published updated guidance that included new metrics for measuring COVID-19 community levels.

The CDC’s new guidance lists Arlington’s current COVID-19 community level as low, and states that masks should be optional in communities at the low level.

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. This change takes effect March 1, and there is no opt-out form required. APS will adjust these requirements, should community levels change. More information is available online.

Mask-wearing is a personal decision based on individual circumstances, and I ask everyone to support our students and each other. We will continue to foster inclusive, safe and supportive learning environments for all. Families, please talk to your student(s) regarding your expectations for mask-wearing and remind them to be kind and respect their peers as they exercise decisions to wear a mask or not.

Although APS is dropping its mask mandate, Arlington’s Public Health Division is waiting for more guidance from the state, says spokesman Ryan Hudson.

The county has required visitors to county facilities to wear masks if they can’t maintain six feet of distance from others. Arlington Public Library has required visitors age two and older, regardless of vaccination status, to mask up since August, which also won’t be changing right now, says library spokesman Henrik Sundqvist.

“In light of the CDC updating the way it monitors COVID-19’s impact on our communities, Arlington County is awaiting updates on the Virginia Department of Health’s mask guidance,” Hudson said. “At this time, there are no changes to the mask policy for County employees and government buildings.”

Right now, the VDH page on masking recommendations is blank save for the following message: “VDH is currently reviewing its mask guidance. Thank you for your patience; updated information will be available soon.”

Once a decision is made, Hudson said, the county will update residents via newsletter, website updates and social media.

“Layered prevention strategies — like staying up to date on vaccines and wearing masks — can help prevent severe illness and reduce the potential for strain on the healthcare system,” he noted.

There hasn’t been a blanket mask mandate in Virginia since former Gov. Ralph Northam lifted it for those who are fully vaccinated in May of last year. But Arlingtonians have had to wear masks in public schools, county buildings and libraries. Anecdotally, residents also stepped up voluntary masking whenever Covid cases surged.

The CDC guidance, however, ends APS’s tug-of-war with state government over mask requirements. The school system was poised to go into more detail on Friday about its plans to require masks — with the caveat that parents can opt their children out in light of a new state law. But it postponed that update to review the CDC guidance.

“We are encouraged by the decline in COVID-19 cases in our community,” APS Superintendent Francisco Durán said in today’s email to families. “Please continue to do your part to maintain a healthy environment by monitoring for illness and staying at home or keeping students at home when sick by using the Daily Health Screener and continuing to actively participate in our layered mitigation strategies. I also urge staff and families to opt into free, weekly in-school testing if they have not already done so.”

Durán emphasized that those who still want to wear masks may do so.

“We remain committed to providing safe learning environments for all and will continue to keep the community informed of any additional updates to our health and safety protocols,” he wrote.

Masks will be “recommended” in schools when CDC-specified levels of infection are medium and required when the levels are classified as high.

Masking rules for Arlington Public Schools (via APS)

The CDC says it will no longer basing policy on case numbers because there are high vaccination rates in many communities, boosters are available and unvaccinated people may have “infection-induced protection.”

Tracking cases, it says, was useful when vaccines weren’t available and the goal was to limit the spread. But two years into the pandemic, transmission rates aren’t helpful for predicting deaths and intensive care unit use — and don not distinguish between severe and mild cases.

The agency says the new approach focuses on “medically significant cases” and the strain on hospitals, two indicators the agency has named “COVID-19 community levels.”

Under the new model, a place has low community levels — and residents can go maskless — if there are fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days, fewer than ten Covid hospital admissions per 100,000 residents, and if Covid patients occupied fewer than 10% of hospital beds.

Immunocompromised people and those who are at risk of severe illness are encouraged to talk to a doctor about wearing a mask when there is a “medium” COVID-19 community level. Those who live with immunocompromised people should also consider masking up.

When community levels are “high,” the CDC advises wearing a well-fitting mask indoors in public — including in K-12 schools and other community settings — regardless of vaccination status or risk levels.

The CDC’s new ‘community level’ indicators (via CDC)

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