Jan 25, 2022 - COVID

Virginia schools push back as Youngkin's mask opt-out kicks in

Illustration of a covid mask with a hole in the shape of a gavel.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Seven Virginia school districts filed a lawsuit Monday to keep their individual mask mandates in place, the same day Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order allowing parents and guardians to opt their children out of their school’s mask mandate went into effect.

Why it matters: The outcome of the lawsuit could determine who has the authority to make pandemic-related decisions within the public schools: individual school boards or the governor.

  • This is also the first clash between the state’s bluest areas and the new GOP governor, who made ending mandates a key campaign promise.
  • “Currently, we are in an untenable situation,” Falls Church City Public Schools Director of Communications John Wesley Brett wrote in an email to Axios. “Caught between state law and an executive order we believe are in conflict with one another.”

Youngkin’s office did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.

  • Youngkin last Friday released the updated school guidance, including the ability for parents to opt-out of masks, reiterating his campaign promises to give parents more choice in schools and responding to a lawsuit from a group of Chesapeake parents opposing his mask policy.
  • “Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents ... In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process,” Youngkin said in a statement.

Details: The suit argues that the state constitution gives school districts the authority to supervise their public schools and that the governor cannot “unilaterally infringe upon that authority through an executive order.”

  • In addition, the suit also points to a state law approved last year that requires local school boards to adhere to CDC recommendations as much as practically possible during the return to in-person school.

Between the lines: On Monday, the first day the executive order went into effect, the seven school districts continued to enforce their own mask mandates, which means students’ parents may be called and students may be sent home if they refuse to wear a mask.

  • Loudoun County public schools, which did not join in on the lawsuit, also said Monday that it will continue to enforce a mask mandate, and students who refuse to wear a mask must meet with staff as well as a parent or guardian to “identify the reason the student will not comply.”

The other side: The conservative policy advocacy group Independent Women’s Voices released a letter this weekend promising to send their children to school without masks, including students in Fairfax County, which is the county leading the lawsuit.

  • In Loudoun County, 60 students across four schools refused to wear masks on Monday, spokesperson Wayde B. Byard told Axios. Those students were relocated to the auditorium and completed work on a virtual platform, Byard added, with teachers checking on their progress. Lunch was also provided.

Reality check: The CDC recommends universal masking of all students over the age of 2 and faculty, regardless of vaccination status.

  • Multiple studies have shown the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by blocking the release of respiratory particles into the environment, protecting both the person wearing the mask and those they come in contact with.

Multiple studies have also shown no adverse cardiovascular or pulmonary impacts of masking in elementary-age children, according to the CDC.

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