Glenn Youngkin launched his tenure as Virginia’s 74th governor this weekend with three executive orders devoted to education — a level of focus on schools that is unprecedented in recent memory and which spells the all-but-certain continuation of polarizing cultural and curricular battles in the divided state.
The Republican governor’s third order asserts that parents must be allowed to decide whether their child wears a mask in school, regardless of what federal or district-level officials say.
The order, with health and safety implications for millions of children and teachers, has elicited confusion and conflicting vows of defiance from districts in more liberal parts of the state, suggesting heightened tension between Virginia schools superintendents and the governor in the first week of his administration. School districts in the immediate D.C. suburbs fired back this weekend by asserting that masks will continue to be required inside buildings.
“Like any contentious issue in American politics, this will end up in a courtroom,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “You really have to go back to the days of massive resistance and desegregation to find education as prominent in the actions of a governor as you have seen in Day One of the Youngkin administration.”
The mask order has left some educators and parents reeling, including the father of an immunocompromised second-grader with a brain tumor in Alexandria, who is uncertain whether he will continue to send his child to school, and an Arlington teacher, who is preparing to confront students who feel empowered to remove their masks. Other parents hailed the removal of masks as the dawning of a new era in which children can begin to learn normally again.
The flurry of education proposals was to be expected, analysts said, given the way Youngkin ran his campaign.
The 55-year-old former private equity executive, who has never held elective office and once founded a church in his basement, trailed his opponent for most of the campaign until he hit on the topic of critical race theory. Youngkin’s promises at rallies to ban the theory — and, later, to give parents more control over what their children learn in public school — saw him gain in polls until he overtook Terry McAuliffe (D), who had begun the race as the clear favorite.
Youngkin’s orders also come as Republican leaders and candidates nationwide are realizing that education, historically a Democratic strong point, can be a potent motivator for suburban parents frustrated with school officials’ handling of coronavirus pandemic-era education.
Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said Youngkin’s first-day actions on education show the newly minted governor plans to “do what he said he would do, which is always healthy and appropriate.”
Hess called Youngkin’s order barring critical race theory “sensible and thoughtful and well-written,” noting that it was one of the more extensive orders Youngkin issued Saturday.
The four-page order instructs the state’s superintendent of public instruction to identify and remove any Virginia Department of Education materials and rules that “promote inherently divisive concepts.” Per the order, the superintendent must also produce a report within 90 days on the status of efforts to close the achievement gap in K-12 education. Another report is required within 30 days on any policies, programs, trainings or curriculums “that [fall] within the definition of inherently divisive concepts,” and within 90 days the superintendent has to identify executive or legislative actions needed to end them.
The order also cancels a program known as the Virginia Math Pathways Initiative, a proposed revision of Standards of Learning in the state that drew fire from conservatives who interpreted it as a plan to eliminate advanced high school math classes.
The critical race theory measure is in line with bills being advanced by Republican leaders and legislators across the country. Since last January, 13 states have imposed restrictions or bans on ways of teaching about race, racism and American history, while 32 states have at least introduced bills that propose those kinds of limitations, according to a tracker maintained by Education Week.
Adam Laats, a Binghamton University professor who studies the history of American education, said a lawmaker-led push to “ban something purportedly bad” from education is a long-running tradition. Laats said legislative or gubernatorial bans on subjects or teachings have rarely proved effective, including myriad attempts to prohibit the teaching of the theory of evolution over the years.
“To my mind, that’s a meaningless piece of propaganda,” Laats said of Youngkin’s critical race theory proclamation. “It will have an effect only indirectly by causing confusion, by making administrators and teachers scramble to figure out if they are in compliance.”
Soon after Youngkin announced the order, Democrats denounced it: “The war they have declared on Black history is dangerous, to say the least,” Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), leader of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said Saturday.
In Loudoun County, school officials did not answer questions Sunday about how they planned to respond to the state investigation ordered by Youngkin.
It was Youngkin’s mask order, which goes into effect Jan. 24, that appeared to draw the most immediate attention this weekend.
The order lifts a mask mandate imposed by Youngkin’s predecessor, former governor Ralph Northam (D). It says parents do not have to provide a reason for choosing not to let their child wear a mask. The order also claims broad authority.
“A child whose parent has elected that he or she is not subject to a mask mandate should not be required to wear a mask under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education, or any other state authority,” the order reads.
Some school officials already have vowed to disobey the order, including the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, Jason Kamras, who tweeted Saturday that his district would “maintain its 100% mask mandate for students, staff, and visitors.” Kamras posted a follow-up tweet Sunday, apparently responding to the critical race theory order, in which he wrote that Virginia “was literally created on the backs of enslaved Africans … [Richmond Public Schools] will continue to study that and be honest about” it.
Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said Saturday that “masks will continue to be required in our buildings.” Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand wrote in a message to families and teachers Sunday that the system is reviewing Youngkin’s executive order and “FCPS will continue universal masking for all students and staff”
Alexandria City Public Schools also sent a communication to families over the weekend saying the school district will “continue to require all individuals to wear masks” on buses and inside schools. But the district’s chief of school and community relations, Julia Burgos, said Sunday that “the superintendent and school board will be reviewing and discussing the new executive order.”
Loudoun County Public Schools hasn’t indicated its stance on masks.
Meanwhile, some households celebrated the order, while others agonized over it.
Caroline Dana, a 44-year-old mother of three in Arlington, said her youngest child is struggling at school because she cannot see her teacher’s mouth behind the mask. And “my child with speech issues has fallen even further behind,” Dana said.
But James McElhatton, 49, noted that his son, a second-grader in Alexandria, recently underwent chemotherapy for a brain tumor.
“If my son is sitting next to a child without a mask, he’s at much greater risk,” McElhatton said. “I just feel a little left out and really caught off-guard.”
And the mask order — coming after a year of increasingly bitter political battles over education — led one teacher in Arlington, Beth Prange, to call it quits.
“I am now going to retire early, and I am not alone,” said Prange, 62. “The future does not look good.”
An Arlington County Public Schools teacher was removed from this story after publication because she said she believed it did not accurately reflect her views on masks in the classroom.