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Virginia Senate votes to make masks in schools optional statewide

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), right, and Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) confer during the floor session of the Virginia Senate in Richmond in January. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

RICHMOND — Virginia’s Senate voted Wednesday to make masks optional in all of the state’s K-12 schools, with three Democrats joining Republicans to support a goal that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has tried to accomplish with a legally disputed executive order. The measure now heads to the Republican-led House, which is expected to support it.

The Senate voted 21 to 17 for a bill that would require schools to instruct students in person and give parents the right to decide if their children wear masks in school. It would take effect July 1, but Youngkin (R) hopes to get the measure implemented sooner, perhaps as soon as the end of February.

The Senate Democrats who voted for the bill said they agreed with the governor’s mask-optional goal, but doubted the legality of his executive order. Youngkin celebrated the vote as a win in a written statement that also took a harshly worded swipe at school boards that continue to require masks.

“I promised that as governor, Virginia would move forward with an agenda that empowers parents on the upbringing, education, and care of their own children. I am proud to continue to deliver on that promise,” he said. “This vote also shows that school boards who are attacking their own students are stunningly detached from reality.”

Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) teamed up to create the mask measure, which emerged from the Senate as Democratic governors in several other states have recently moved to end statewide school mask mandates. But those governors were still leaving masking decisions up to local school boards. The Virginia bill would let individual parents decide.

During a debate that ran for more than an hour, Dunnavant, a practicing physician, took issue with the notion that someone who opts against wearing a mask threatens the health of others.

“It’s not accurate scientifically. It’s un-American,” she said. “I decide for myself. I look at the risk.”

She acknowledged that senators faced a conflict between two provisions of the state constitution — one that says school boards are in charge of their schools, and another that asserts parents have “a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care” of their children.

“You’re going to have to choose which authority you’re going to stand by today,” she said.

Democrats have narrow control of the Senate and three of them joined Republicans to support the bill — a drop-off in support from a day earlier, when 10 Democrats had signaled their support in a preliminary vote. The three Democratic senators who voted for it were Peterson, Joseph D. Morrissey (Richmond) and Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (Accomack).

Youngkin won office in November with a campaign that championed parental rights and played into a range of school-related culture wars, ranging from sexually explicit classroom materials and teaching about systemic racism to coronavirus mask and vaccine mandates. He issued a flurry of executive orders on Inauguration Day last month, including the one aimed at giving parents the right to decide if their children wear masks in schools.

Several groups of parents and school systems have challenged that order in court, arguing it violates both a state law that expires in August and the state constitution, which gives local school boards authority over their schools. A judge in Arlington has blocked the order in seven Virginia school districts, while the Supreme Court of Virginia this week rejected a suit from parents in Chesapeake on technical grounds.

The 10 Democrats on the House Education Committee all opposed that chamber’s version of the amended bill on Wednesday morning, though it passed the committee on a party-line vote.

Representatives of the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents all spoke against the bill during the committee hearing. All said they wanted local school districts to retain some power to impose mask mandates during a crisis.

Del. Amanda Batten (R-Williamsburg), who sponsored the House bill, told the committee that she had been surprised by the mask amendment that advanced in the Senate on Tuesday. Her bill was quickly modified to reflect the same amendment.

While several Senate Democrats had supported that version, Democrats in the House committee said they were concerned that the measure would limit options during any future surges of the coronavirus.

“This takes away local school boards’ ability to enforce a local mask requirement when the community spread is high,” House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said during committee debate. “Kids would be put in jeopardy.”

Education Secretary-designee Aimee Guidera told the committee that she believes masks are no longer seen as effective deterrents to the spread of coronavirus. But she said that’s not even the point of the bill.

“This is not about masks, this is about parents’ rights to have judgment” of what’s best for their children, Guidera said.

When Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) asked Guidera how the bill would leave room for school systems to create a safe environment for disabled children who cannot be vaccinated, Guidera said the schools would have to be creative.

“We need to encourage people to be problem-solvers,” Guidera said. “We also need to think about how we serve all children and not just always think — ah — about …” She did not complete the thought.

Also Wednesday, the Senate passed another hot-button schools bill, also brought by Dunnavant. It would require schools to notify parents of any sexually explicit instructional material and provide for an alternative assignment for any student whose parents object.

Dunnavant stressed that the bill would not censor any books from school libraries. It passed 20 to 18, with Lewis and Sen. T. Montgomery “Monty” Mason (D-Williamsburg) joining Republicans in support and one senator from each party absent.