The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. Gov. Youngkin seeks to make masks in schools optional by March 1, pending legislative approval

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) at his office at the Capitol in Richmond on Feb. 15. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Three Democrats in the state Senate gave Gov. Glenn Youngkin a major win Tuesday by backing the Republican’s effort to let parents opt their children out of school mask mandates almost immediately.

The measure now moves to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, which is expected to act on it Wednesday.

The Senate and House recently passed a bill making masks optional in K-12 schools, effective July 1. But Youngkin sent it back with an amendment — an “emergency clause” that would make the measure go into effect right away. He also added language that gives school systems about two weeks to develop plans for implementing the new policy. Each district would have to comply by March 1.

Youngkin’s staff said the delay is aimed at allowing school administrators, parents and teachers time to prepare for the change.

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

Youngkin also added a line declaring that “nothing in this section shall be construed to affect the Governor’s authority” to respond to future health crises. It was unclear whether that language is intended to allow the governor to enforce future mask or other mandates as needed. Youngkin’s staff did not respond to a request for clarification.

Democrats in the legislature protested loudly last month when Youngkin issued an Inauguration Day executive order declaring that parents have the right to opt their children out of school mask mandates, with many objecting on constitutional grounds. Lawsuits were filed and, in one case, a state judge has questioned the legality of the order.

But Democratic opposition has recently softened, particularly after several blue-state governors began lifting statewide mandates and letting school boards decide mask policies for themselves.

Even so, the emergency implementation sought by Youngkin was a close vote in the Senate, which Democrats control 21 to 19. Youngkin made four recommendations to the bill, three of them related to speeding implementation, the other related to the governor’s ability to respond to a new crisis.

Democrats had the Senate vote separately on the recommendations related to the emergency clause so they could register their opposition to that part. Three Democrats — Sens. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), Joseph D. Morrissey (Richmond) and Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (Accomack) — voted for the emergency clause, while one Republican, Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta), voted against.

“I would like this, like, yesterday, but that’s not going to happen,” Petersen said.

Democrats in the House of Delegates had criticized the bill as tying the hands of school districts, preventing them from using mandates if there is another surge in the coronavirus or some other kind of outbreak.

A majority of lawmakers in both the Senate and House of Delegates would have to approve the changes.

The House approved the original Senate bill Monday on a party-line vote of 52 to 48, and House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) hand-carried the legislation to Youngkin at his office in the Capitol.

The two sides of Youngkin: Virginia’s new governor calls for unity but keeps stoking volatile issues

The House passed its own version of the bill Tuesday before the addition of the emergency clause with another party-line vote, 52 to 48, but Democrats warned that they might contest the idea that it would take only a simple majority vote to approve Youngkin’s emergency clause.

Emergency clauses that originate in the General Assembly ordinarily require a four-fifths vote for approval. In the Senate, an emergency clause requested by the governor is treated differently, requiring only a simple majority.

House Clerk Paul Nardo has ruled that the House also requires a simple majority for an emergency clause requested by the governor, based in part on rules adopted under Democratic leadership over the past two years.

House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who served as speaker when Democrats were in power, said Tuesday that she does not believe her rules on the matter stand as precedent. It was unclear early Tuesday how Democrats could alter the clerk’s ruling on the matter, and several Democrats conceded privately that they were unlikely to be able to prevent Republicans from moving ahead.

The Senate bill will move on to the House once the Senate takes action, potentially on Wednesday.