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Youngkin signs law requiring Virginia public schools to make masks optional by March 1

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signs a bill on Feb. 16 making masks optional in schools. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that all 19 Virginia Senate Republicans voted for the bill making masks optional in public schools. In fact, 18 Senate Republicans did. Also, an earlier version of this article mentioned Del. Amanda E. Batten (R-James City) and incorrectly rendered her last name as Bennett. The article has been corrected.

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin took to the steps of the Virginia Capitol on Wednesday to ceremonially sign a bill making masks optional in public schools, proclaiming before scores of cheering supporters that “we are reaffirming the … fundamental rights all parents have to make decisions for their children.”

Youngkin (R) treated the bill-signing like a major campaign event, with schoolchildren brought in as a backdrop and Republican legislators on the steps of the Capitol portico behind them.

“This morning was my ninth suspension over not wearing a mask,” Fairfax County fourth-grader Bronagh McAllister, 10, told the crowd as she stood next to Youngkin. “It’s been really hard to do work. … Thank you to Governor Youngkin that he has made it a law that parents or kids can make the decision of their own.”

The law goes into effect immediately, but school districts have until March 1 to comply. Youngkin, who built his campaign for office partly on a promise to end school mask mandates, cast his first big legislative win as “restoring power back to parents.”

He also said the moment signals a new chapter in the coronavirus pandemic, “reestablishing our expectations that we will get back to normal, and this is the path.”

The measure he signed took an extraordinary — and extraordinarily fast — route to his desk. Youngkin signed an executive order on his inauguration day that said parents had the power to opt their children out of school mask mandates.

Democrats protested loudly, calling the action unconstitutional, and there were several challenges in court, with one state judge questioning the legality of the order.

But last week, Sen. Chap Petersen — a Fairfax Democrat who has long held that no governor should be able to impose such mandates — supported a measure to make it state law that masks are optional.

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

Two Democrats joined him, and the measure cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates took up the Senate bill in expedited fashion, approved it on a party-line vote and had it to Youngkin’s desk by Monday.

That version would have gone into effect July 1, so Youngkin amended it with an “emergency clause” that would make the law effective immediately. He also added a line saying school districts have until March 1 to comply, and another line specifying that the law does not prevent the governor from taking emergency steps to fight future health crises.

Youngkin said Wednesday that he added that last line at the request of Democrats and that he takes it to mean he could require masks if needed.

But Youngkin suggested it would take an outbreak of something such as measles or tuberculosis to invoke that power. For covid? “I don’t think we’re going to need it, at this point,” he said. “We’ve seen omicron actually decline substantially — omicron is of course far less severe — and this is the natural progression of this pandemic, which won’t go away.”

Democrats in the House voted in favor of that change Wednesday but otherwise opposed the bill — and particularly the emergency clause that puts it into effect immediately. Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) argued that the state constitution requires a four-fifths vote instead of a simple majority for the emergency clause and predicted the matter would be challenged in court.

The Senate had taken up the governor’s amendments the night before; Petersen and two other Democrats joined 18 Republicans in supporting the emergency clause.

Youngkin invited Petersen to take part in Wednesday’s ceremony, but he declined, watching from the fringes of the crowd. “You got to know your moment, and my moment was on the floor of the Senate,” Petersen said. “The governor signs the bill. He’s a celebrity. I’m just a dad.”

Virginia Senate votes to make masks in schools optional statewide

Several other Democrats had initially supported Petersen’s efforts as other states led by Democratic governors, such as Delaware and New Jersey, began winding down their statewide mandates earlier this month.

In those states, though, localities continue to have the option of requiring masks in schools. Virginia’s new law goes a step further, giving parents the right to opt out — effectively making any mandate unenforceable.

Though Youngkin said during his campaign that he would lift the state mandate and let localities decide for themselves, he now says the prime factor is giving parents the individual right to choose.

Asked Wednesday why he resisted Democratic calls for a “sunset provision” that would limit the law’s life span, Youngkin said: “I don’t feel there is a moment where the rights of parents sunset.”

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A few hours after the law was enacted, Loudoun County Public Schools, whose 82,000 students make it one of the largest school systems in the state, announced that it would undo its mask mandate in compliance with the law, starting Tuesday.

Loudoun Superintendent Scott Ziegler noted in a message to parents, students and staffers that transmission rates in the county are high but decreasing.

“Although masks are no longer mandatory, LCPS encourages the continued use of masks while community transmission rates remain high,” Ziegler wrote.

Otherwise, few of the school districts that had been most outspoken in defying Youngkin’s mask-optional order announced definite immediate plans. Officials in Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties — all among the seven localities that filed suit against Youngkin’s order — said they are reviewing policies.

The law’s passage brought divided reactions from parents and school officials across Virginia.

In Chesapeake, Amanda Lambert, a ninth-grade English teacher whose blood-clotting disorder puts her at high risk from the coronavirus, said she is deeply unhappy with the passage of the law, even though she does not expect it will much affect her daily life.

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Lambert’s district made masking optional weeks ago in response to Youngkin’s order. Since then, Lambert said, between 85 and 90 percent of her students have continued masking anyway, although she has heard reports from colleagues who work in Whiter, more affluent schools that most students there are going maskless. She works at a Title I school that is majority Black and Hispanic, she said.

Lambert, 41, said the bill’s passage shows that Youngkin is determined to support only the rights of parents who agree with him on political and cultural issues. And, she added, she dislikes how the governor and the legislature managed to force all school districts to comply with mask optionality, calling the maneuvering a blatant example of “how to avoid legal procedure.”

In Clarke County, school board member Katie Kerr-Hobert was also displeased. Kerr-Hobert, who is 42 and has two children enrolled in the school system, said the governor’s actions have revealed deep-seated disrespect for school boards and their constitutional right to determine policies for their school systems.

Kerr-Hobert’s district already adopted a mask-optional policy in response to Youngkin’s earlier executive order; she was the only board member to vote against removing the mask requirement. She has been surprised, in weeks since, by how many children continued masking anyway, she said.

But the mask-optional guidelines have also driven division in Clarke County schools, Kerr-Hobert said, causing “a spiral of issues” including concerns over discrimination against children who now cannot attend school because they fear for their health.

“The governor’s decisions I think are really hurting public education right now,” she said. “Causing this friction within our communities regarding masking — it just seems like people are going to continue and continue and continue to do battle over these covid protocols.”

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But elsewhere, others were celebrating. Christy Hudson, a Fairfax County parent, posted a tweet Tuesday praising the likely passage of the law.

She thanked legislators, including Petersen, and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) for “your Herculean efforts to protect the needs & rights of our Commonwealth’s youngest constituents.”

In a statement Wednesday after the law passed, the Fairfax County Parents Association, a parent advocacy group that formed during the pandemic, wrote that it is high time for students to be allowed to unmask in schools, per the determinations of their parents.

“The reality is that families and students spent two years begging the levels of local government for leadership on these issues,” the group wrote. “Begging for a recognition of harms happening to many children before their eyes.”

In Loudoun County, parent Ian Prior — founder of the parent educational advocacy group Fight for Schools, which is seeking recalls of Loudoun board members over their handling of the pandemic — said parents everywhere will breathe a sigh of relief because of the law’s passage.

“More importantly, our children will be in school breathing, talking, and learning without masks,” Prior said. “They are happiest of all with the passage of this law.”