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Va. Gov. Youngkin promises quick action on bill to make masks optional in schools

House Majority Leader Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), left, and Del. Amanda E. Batten (R-James City) look on as House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) hands Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) a bill passed by the House of Delegates that would allow parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates. (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates gave swift, party-line passage Monday to a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) promised to seek an emergency clause as soon as Tuesday so the measure could go into effect right away.

“We’re going to go to work immediately to attach [an] emergency clause so we can get this back to you so we can put this in place,” Youngkin told House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who took the unusual step of hand-carrying the bill to the governor shortly after it passed the House. The same measure passed the state Senate last week.

Virginia Senate votes to make masks in schools optional statewide

Gilbert had promised to make the personal delivery to underscore the political significance of the measure. Youngkin, who made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign for office, sought to give parents leeway to break school mask mandates with an executive order he signed hours after being inaugurated.

That action was challenged in court, and a judge in Arlington blocked the order in seven Virginia school districts. The Supreme Court of Virginia rejected a separate suit from parents in Chesapeake on technical grounds.

The legislation passed Monday could make those cases moot. Once Youngkin signs it, it would ordinarily go into effect on July 1 along with most other new laws. But if the governor returns it with an emergency clause, he would only need a majority vote in each chamber of the General Assembly to put the law into effect within days.

The bill cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate last week with support from all Republicans and three Democrats, led by Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City). A longtime foe of school mask mandates, Petersen argued that coronavirus infection rates are coming down and that the legislature, not the governor, is the proper authority to direct school system policies.

Gilbert then put the Senate bill on the fast track in the Republican-majority House, where it came up for final passage on Monday. House Democrats strongly objected, with Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) accusing Republicans of trying to “give the governor a political win that he badly needs after that awful start.”

Several Democrats argued that the bill guts the use of mask mandates as a tool to control future coronavirus outbreaks because it allows parents to opt out without having to provide a reason.

“We are taking this authority away from the localities,” said Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke).

House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) pointed out that the measure goes far beyond the recent actions of other states such as Delaware and New Jersey, which are lifting statewide mask mandates but allowing localities to impose them if they see fit.

“If this bill passes — and it pains me to say this — welcome to Florida,” Filler-Corn said, referring to that state’s ban on school mask mandates. “This bill ties the hands of local school districts.”

But Republicans argued that the measure is aimed at empowering parents.

“We’re standing up for your children, too — don’t forget that,” argued an emotional Del. Emily M. Brewer (R-Suffolk). Without action, she said, children now enduring mask mandates “will wonder who stood up for their freedom.”

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“Parents have been waiting a long time for this issue to come up and I think it’s time,” said House Majority Leader Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott). The matter passed on a party-line vote of 52 to 48.

Gilbert then briefly had the House stand at ease as he marched the bill up to Youngkin on the third floor of the Capitol, accompanied by several other Republicans.

“It’s my pleasure to deliver Senate Bill 739 to you,” Gilbert said, handing over a printout of the measure.

“I am incredibly excited for you to be delivering it to me,” Youngkin replied, promising to act on it quickly. “I look forward to signing it.”