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Youngkin urges calm on his call for a ban on mask mandates but also stokes division

Jean Ballard, left, and Heather West join about two dozen parents outside Woodgrove High School in Purcellville, Va., for a mask protest on Jan. 24. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that a group of school districts challenged Gov. Glenn Youngkin's mask mandate ban in the Supreme Court of Virginia. The group challenged it in Arlington Circuit Court. The article has been corrected.

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Monday invoked the biblical call to “love your neighbor” as school systems around the state struggled with strong reactions to his ban on local mask mandates, but the Republican also fanned the flames of partisan division in the face of court challenges and protests.

School districts resisting his ban “aren’t recognizing the rights of parents today,” Youngkin told conservative radio host John Fredericks. “And oh, by the way, they haven’t been recognizing the rights of parents all along. So I’m not surprised at all to hear these reactions from school boards that have consistently prioritized bureaucrats and politicians over the rights of parents.”

His comments dismissed the concerns of some of the biggest school systems in the state after a group of them challenged Youngkin’s ban in Arlington Circuit Court. Those localities — including the counties of Fairfax and Prince William and the city of Richmond — argue that a state law requiring them to follow federal guidelines to fight the coronavirus makes it necessary to require face coverings in crowded schools.

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With feelings running high across Virginia, Youngkin asked parents for calm after a woman in Page County was arrested and charged with making a threat against school officials there if they persisted in requiring masks.

But Youngkin, who took office promising to govern “for all Virginians,” has otherwise struck an increasingly partisan tone. Public sentiment toward mask mandates is “moving against the left liberals,” he said Monday to Fredericks, who was Donald Trump’s Virginia presidential campaign chairman in 2016 and 2020.

In the interview, Youngkin also touted a tip line for parents to report to the state any school officials they find to be behaving objectionably — including teaching “divisive” subjects. Youngkin has issued an executive order and is backing legislation that seeks to ban concepts such as critical race theory, an academic construct about the history of systemic racism.

“We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations,” Youngkin said, “help us be aware of … their child being denied their rights that parents have in Virginia, and we’re going to make sure we catalogue it all. … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.”

Youngkin told Fredericks that 25 of Virginia’s 130 school districts have challenged his ban on mask mandates. According to a Washington Post tally, though, 58 of the state’s districts have either filed suit or pledged to keep a mask mandate in place. Youngkin’s office conceded that its figure, based on news reports and not a survey of all districts, was probably low.

Youngkin urged parents who oppose masks to have patience while the legal battle plays out. “What I’m telling parents today is, ‘Trust the legal process. … Love your neighbor,' ” he told Fredericks. “This is one of these moments where I know people might want to do some things that make a strong statement.”

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Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a schoolteacher in a Richmond-area district that is bucking the governor’s mask-optional order, said Youngkin was trying “trying to have his cake and eat it too” by urging calm while still stoking opposition to masks.

“Principals are already teaching classes because so many teachers and staff are absent because they are sick, and now they can’t do that because they’re spending their entire day on phone calls dealing with conflicts the governor initiated,” VanValkenburg said.

In an interview Monday with conservative host Hugh Hewitt, Youngkin said that he has been consulting with other Republican governors as he gets his administration underway. Hewitt mentioned Ron DeSantis of Florida and Mike DeWine of Ohio, and while Youngkin did not specifically confirm each, he said that “it’s been a great support network. And what we’re seeing, of course, is states led by Republicans outperforming states who are led by Democrats.”

It was unclear what Youngkin meant by that comment, which came at the end of a discussion about mask mandates. If he was referring to masks, the data do not seem to back him up.

Virginia under Democratic former governor Ralph Northam has performed well against both states in coronavirus case numbers and deaths. On Monday, the seven-day average of new cases in Virginia was 985; it was 1,424 in Florida, while Ohio’s number was slightly lower, at 960. Both Florida and Ohio have seven-day averages of deaths per 100,000 higher than Virginia’s; Ohio had 13 per 100,000, Florida had 6.1 and Virginia had 2.2.

Youngkin’s office declined to make him available for a follow-up interview.

Youngkin’s recent position on masks takes a harder line than he did shortly before and after November’s election, when he said he would leave it up to localities whether to impose mask mandates. Some Trump supporters were unhappy with that position — including Fredericks, who now says he is pleasantly surprised by Youngkin’s firmer stance.

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“He’s Trump in a red vest,” Fredericks said in an interview with The Post after he had Youngkin on the air, referring to the governor’s ever-present fleece vest while on the campaign trail. “It’s exceeded everybody’s expectations. … From the beginning of his campaign to the Saturday he put his hand on the Bible and took the oath of office, I was his biggest skeptic. And now, two weeks into his administration, I’m his biggest supporter.”

Fredericks credits Youngkin’s new stance to a post-election backlash from Trump voters, who had turned out in record numbers in rural areas to give Youngkin his two-point victory.

“He got blasted by the whole Trump-ecosystem base,” Fredericks said. “If he wants to run for something else or keep his coalition together, you simply can’t alienate us.”