RICHMOND, Va. Virginia’s new Republican governor faced setbacks from Democratic lawmakers, school districts and a group of parents who sued him Tuesday over an executive order aimed at creating an opt-out for classroom mask mandates.
The order, issued Saturday and coming into effect Monday, was among Glenn Youngkin’s first acts after he was sworn in as Virginia’s 74th governor. The movement fulfilled both a campaign promise and imprisoned Youngkin, a political newcomer working with a divided legislature, on a divisive issue that has created legal challenges in other states.
Youngkins’ order said that parents of any child in elementary or high school or a school-based childcare or education program “may choose not to have their children subject to any mask mandate.”
Partly due to a state law passed last year that deals with classrooms and pandemic policies, school districts in many of the state’s most populous locations have since told parents they planned to keep existing mask mandates in place, at least temporarily.
The 2021 Act states that every school board in Virginia is required to provide personal instruction that complies “to the fullest extent possible” with the COVID-19 mitigation guidelines from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC currently recommends universal masking of all 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status.
Many districts – from Charlottesville to Richmond to Arlington – cited this law by announcing that they had no plans to change the masking rules immediately. Others said they reviewed the guidance or were waiting for further clarification from the state, while at least two, King George County and Louisa County, announced plans to comply.
On Tuesday, a group of parents of children in the Chesapeake Public Schools sued the governor and members of his administration at the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that the ordinance violates state law.
“The petitioners have no appropriate remedies by law and no time to spare. They and their children are likely to suffer irreparable harm and harm if this court refuses to grant immediate relief,” they wrote.
Asked for a comment on the legal challenge, Youngkin spokesman Macaulay Porter replied: “We will continue to protect parents’ fundamental right to make decisions regarding their child’s upbringing, education and care.”
She did not specifically answer a question about how the governor intended to enforce the order.
Youngkin, who advocates for vaccination efforts but fought against mask and vaccine mandates, recently said he would “use any resource within the governor’s authority” to ensure parents can choose whether or not their children wear masks. He also ended a vaccination or test mandate for state workers through an executive order Saturday.
Democrats accused him of exceeding his authority on the masked order, ignoring state law and trying to bully local school districts.
“I am disappointed that right out of the gate we are focusing on cultural wars rather than the goals of educating children,” the Democratic Part said. Schuyler VanValkenburg, an elementary school teacher.
University of Richmond law professor Jack Preis said a parent or school district would have a strong argument that the order violates state law.
“State law trumps an executive order, no doubt,” said Preis, who has taught courses on law and administrative law.
“If he wants to give parents the right to opt out of mask rules, he has to change the statute, and it starts with the legislature,” Preis said.
But some Republicans have argued that state law does not impose masks. Among them was State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, a doctor who helped negotiate the bill, which also mandated personal instruction. Dunnavant said this week that the law does not impose masks because the CDC does not impose masks – it only recommends them.
Youngkin’s order states that masks “inhibit children’s ability to communicate, delay language development, and inhibit the growth of emotional and social skills.”
The Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed the issue and went on to recommend children wear a well-fitting face mask at school, regardless of vaccination status.
Most states let schools determine their own mask policies, but several Republican-led states have moved to ban mask requirements in public schools. Such bans remain in effect in Florida, Texas and Utah, while some others have been rejected by the courts or are facing ongoing legal battles.
The debate over masks has intensified as schools struggle to include the omicron variant, which has been blamed for forcing hundreds of schools across the United States to return to distance learning and has also led some districts to reintroduce mask policies.
Two parents in Bedford County, who last week voted to lift their mask mandate before Youngkin’s promulgation, offered differing opinions on the need for masks in schools.
Chelsea Jones, 30, has a 6-year-old son in elementary school. She said she worries that mask wearing affects speech development because children rely on facial expressions to communicate. Noting that adults do not wear masks in other public settings, she said that “children are almost punished for being children.”
But Brian Mulligan, 53, was concerned about the risk to his 14-year-old son, who has cystic fibrosis. He said he voted for Youngkin but felt betrayed by the executive order.
“If masking can only save one child, is it not worth the masks?” said Mulligan.
Associated Press writers Parker Purifoy in Washington; Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland; Denise Lavoie of Richmond, Virginia; and Collin Binkley of Boston contributed to this report.
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