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Students wear masks to school in Virginia

A school bus arrives at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia on on March 4, 2021. (Photo: Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images)

Virginia Schools Sue Youngkin Mandate Making Masks Optional

The Republican governor wants to allow parents to decide whether their children should wear masks to school to mitigate Covid-19 transmission—guidance at least 58 school districts have no plans to follow.

Julia Conley

School districts serving more than 350,000 students in Virginia filed a lawsuit against Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Monday, the day his executive order making face coverings optional in schools—against the guidance of public health experts—took effect.

Seven districts filed the lawsuit in the Circuit Court for the County of Arlington, arguing that the governor cannot "unilaterally override" the authority given to local school boards by Article 8, Section 7 of the state constitution and accusing Youngkin of endangering students and school staffers by revoking an earlier mask mandate for public schools.

"Without today's action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position—faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law."

The school boards—which serve Fairfax and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, Hampton, and Richmond—said in court filings that "based on authoritative medical guidance," they have adopted "policies and practices calling for the continued wearing of masks by all students and staff while at school" to protect them and the surrounding communities from Covid-19 transmission.

Youngkin's order, which says parents "may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect," renders the districts' public health policies "meaningless," they said, at a time when the state is reporting a daily case average of more than 14,000 amid the Omicron variant surge.

The state's previous mask mandate for schools was signed into law last year by Youngkin's predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, and said public schools must offer in-person instruction while observing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) public health guidelines "to the maximum extent practicable." The CDC recommends universal masking in schools for anyone aged two or older.

"Without today's action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position—faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law," the lawsuit stated.

"Today's action is not politically motivated," the school boards added. "The lawsuit is not brought out of choice but out of necessity."

Youngkin said when he took office earlier this month that "parents should have the ability to decide whether their child should wear masks for the duration of the school day," echoing similar statements by right-wing state leaders including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The governor's order does not account for the fact that school districts across Virginia "have students and staff members who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19, and for whom an infection with the virus could lead to serious illness or death, including many students with disabilities," the school boards said in the lawsuit.

"In addition to the students and the staff who attend and teach in the plaintiffs' school divisions, those students and staff have siblings, parents, guardians, and other family members—young and old—who cannot take or benefit from the Covid-19 vaccine due to age or medical condition, and who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of a Covid-19 infection," the lawsuit continued.

As Youngkin's guidance went into effect Monday, at least 58 of the state's 130 school districts had no plans to follow his order by allowing parents to decide whether their children should wear masks at school; Fairfax County school superintendent Scoitt Braband said he would remove students from classrooms if they arrived at school without a mask.

The school districts' lawsuit comes days after more than a dozen parents whose children attend Cheaspeake Public Schools filed a separate challenge, asking the state Supreme Court to rule that Youngkin's order violates state law.

The battle between Virginia schools and Youngkin came up at a White House press briefing Monday when Fox News reporter Peter Doocy asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether President Joe Biden believes school boards or parents "know best" regarding safety measures in schools.

"The president believes public health officials have the best guidance on what we can all do to protect ourselves, including teachers, administrators, and students," said Psaki.

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