Just before the Page County School Board voted Thursday night on whether to keep requiring masks in schools — as dozens of school districts throughout Virginia grappled this week with a hotly contested executive order from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) declaring masks optional — parent Amelia King stepped to the microphone.
King said she had decided, against her normal custom, not to prepare a written statement for the evening’s public comment session, which was recorded on video and posted to YouTube. She warned that, “when I go off the cuff, I get really passionate.” Then she threatened the board with a promise to show up with guns if it did not make masking optional for the rural Virginia district of 3,000.
“My children will not come to school on Monday with a mask on,” she said. “That’s not happening, and I will bring every single gun loaded and ready to, I will call every — ”
A board member interjected that King had run over her allotted three minutes of speaking time. King replied, “Mm hm. I’ll see y’all on Monday” and left the room.
School officials later contacted police, who launched an investigation, and raised the alarm to federal and state officials, including the commonwealth’s attorney. On Friday, Luray police charged King with making an oral threat while on school property, according to an announcement on its Facebook page. A magistrate released King on a $5,000 bond, police said.
It was a dramatic example of the turmoil that spread throughout Virginia this week as some school officials and families vowed to fight Youngkin’s executive order, which gives parents the right to decide whether their child wears a mask in school, while others celebrated it. Youngkin promised this week he would take every step in his power to enforce the optional-masking rule. The order is supposed to take effect Monday.
As of Friday, school districts in the liberal-leaning northern sectors of the state — including school districts in Fairfax, Loudoun, Alexandria City, Arlington and Richmond, Youngkin’s new home — had vowed to continue masking, citing a state law passed during the summer that requires schools to comply with federal health guidelines to the “maximum extent practicable.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masking for everyone older than 2 inside schools, regardless of vaccination status. A group of parents in Chesapeake sued to reverse Youngkin’s order this week, also referencing that law, known as S.B. 1303.
Conservatives, including one of the authors of S.B. 1303, are arguing that the law should not be interpreted as a mask mandate. Because the CDC only recommends and does not require masking, they contend, S.B. 1303 does not prevent Youngkin’s masking order.
On Thursday, Youngkin responded to the Chesapeake parents’ lawsuit by moving to dismiss it. In a court document, Youngkin, acting Virginia health director Colin Greene and state schools superintendent Jillian Balow argued that the petitioners lack standing to sue, because they “have failed entirely to allege any injury at all” resulting to their families from the mask-optional order.
Youngkin, Greene and Balow further wrote that the governor’s masking order does not conflict with S.B. 1303, which they wrote should not be interpreted to require schools to “unthinkingly adopt every item on the vast menu of options” that exist for responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The trio cited another section of Virginia law that gives parents the “fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child” as supporting Youngkin’s move to leave masking decisions to parents. Finally, the brief cites the behavior of Youngkin’s predecessor in office, Ralph Northam (D), who in August instituted a mask mandate for all K-12 schools — drawing on the Virginia General Assembly’s decision during the pandemic to grant the governor broad emergency powers.
“Youngkin has invoked these same powers to remove requirements that have proven ineffective in combating transmission of COVID-19,” the brief concludes. “These actions are assuredly within powers the same emergency power previously invoked to compel the donning of masks and to forbid in-person education.”
Although Youngkin’s order is supposed to go into effect Monday, the outstanding questions about its legality — and the looming layered conflicts of authority among school districts, the governor, the state legislature and federal health authorities — have left superintendents, teachers, parents and students unsure of what to expect next week.
Northern Virginia officials did not share much about how they planned to enforce their mask mandates next week should students or parents protest them.
The most forthcoming was Fairfax County Public Schools. Late Friday, Fairfax superintendent Scott Brabrand sent a message to families and staff informing them what will happen to students who show up without a mask next week. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, Brabrand wrote, such behavior will count as a dress code violation.
Dress code violations can lead to “counseling, loss of privileges, removal from class or activities, or disciplinary action,” according to Fairfax schools code.
“We are working towards a day when we can begin to roll back these safety measures, including universal masking,” Brabrand wrote in the message. “But for right now, we must continue to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable.”
Brabrand also wrote that Fairfax will hold a virtual town hall to discuss the school system’s masking policy on Monday at 7 p.m.
Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman Wayde Byard said he had heard “anecdotal reports from schools” that parents are contacting school officials to vow their child will be maskless next week. Byard said any of the district’s 80,000 students who come in without masks Monday will be told they have to put one on.
“If they do not have a mask, one will be provided to them,” Byard wrote in an email. “If a student refuses to comply, staff will meet with the student and contact the parent/guardian to discuss and identify the reason the student refuses to comply.” If the reason is medical or related to financial need, Byard said, the school will develop a “plan of action” for that student.
Frank Bellavia, spokesman for Arlington Public Schools, said officials in his district of 26,000 have not received communications from any families saying their children will not wear masks Monday. Bellavia did not answer a question asking how Arlington will deal with any maskless students.
Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, said Friday that “any student or staff who arrives without a mask will be provided one by the school.”
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter did not directly reply to a question Friday asking what steps the governor will take to ensure disobedient districts allow families to send their children to school maskless. Instead, Porter pointed to remarks Youngkin gave to a group of reporters Thursday.
“We are encouraging people to take responsibility and make their own decisions,” Youngkin said then, according to a transcript provided by Porter.
Porter also noted Friday that “the governor expects that the courts will uphold the executive order.”
Late Friday, the governor’s office released a set of guidelines meant to clarify how the “parental opt-out from mask mandates” should work, but that further muddied the waters for some.
The 14-page guidelines list “Prevention Strategies” that should be undertaken by three categories of people: parents, school officials and staff, and public health personnel. For parents, there are three bullet points: one that suggests keeping sick children home, one that suggests vaccination and one that says simply “Masks.” The last bullet point, while reaffirming Youngkin’s view that masking is the parents’ choice, also seems to suggest the governor is saying parents should keep their child masked at school.
In a news release accompanying the guidelines, Youngkin said, “I urge all parents to listen to their principal … ” But several school districts have already said they will not comply with the masking guidelines and have instructed their staff — including principals — to tell children to stay masked on Monday.
Asked whether Youngkin meant to encourage parents to obey principals who explicitly instruct children and families to mask up — thus disobeying the governor’s own executive order — spokeswoman Porter did not directly answer. Instead she re-sent a statement from the governor reading: “I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents … in the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process.”
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said what he called Youngkin’s “11th hour guidance” had only made things worse.
“There will still be much confusion for parents, children and school systems on Monday,” Tobias said. “I wonder how many parents will read this guidance, understand it and be able to make an informed decision, much less school employees, over the weekend.”
Frazier O’Leary IV, a 50-year-old father in Fairfax, said he expects that Youngkin will win eventually but that the question will almost certainly have to be decided by the courts — and that decision will not come by the time his teenage son is supposed to head back to the classroom next week. O’Leary, who said he is a conservative Republican, said he plans to allow his son to decide whether to wear a mask, even though the Fairfax school system has insisted masking is still required.
“I think what all this is really surfacing is people yelling at each other,” O’Leary said. “Nobody is allowing that the parents who want masks care about their kids, and the parents who don’t want masks care about their kids.”
The conflicts played out over the course of the week in school board meetings and online forums, although teachers in Northern Virginia reported little debate or concerns in their physical classrooms. School boards in more-conservative rural areas quickly voted to make masking optional, dependent on the judgment of parents. Boards that have done so include those in Chesapeake, Spotsylvania and Bedford County.
In Page County, a deep-red district whose county seat is Luray and where 79 percent of the population voted for Youngkin, the school board ultimately voted Thursday to make masking optional, subject to the feelings of students’ parents. All staffers are still required to wear masks, and everyone has to mask up when riding Page County school buses.
Before the vote, school officials presented data showing that when the school district surveyed its families this week on their mask preferences, about 70 percent of respondents said they wanted to make masks optional, while the remainder preferred universal masking. The district surveyed staffers, too, and found that the numbers were flipped: About 64 percent said they wanted universal masking, while 36 percent said they thought parents should be allowed to choose.
Members of the school board did not respond on the record Friday to requests for comment. King and some family members also did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement released Friday morning and sent to The Washington Post, Page County Schools Superintendent Antonia M. Fox and board chair Megan Gordon wrote that they were in communication with local, state and federal authorities about the comments King made at Thursday’s board meeting. There will be an increased police presence at Luray-area schools Monday, Fox and Gordon wrote.
“Not only do comments such as these go against everything we wish to model for our students, they go against the very nature of how we as a community should interact with each other,” they wrote. “Violence and threats are never acceptable or appropriate.”
Asked about the Page County incident Friday, Youngkin spokeswoman Porter wrote in an emailed statement that “the governor does not condone violence or threats of any kind.”
Meanwhile, competing parent groups elsewhere in the state are fighting over masking in online forums and in person. In Loudoun, a parent group called Loudoun4All held a rally early this week in support of masking, issuing a statement that “masking is one of the easiest, best ways to prevent community spread within a school.”
Emily Paterson, a mother to two children in Fairfax County, said she was devastated when she heard about Youngkin’s masking order. When she told her children about it, Paterson said, they “were just expressing disbelief that grown-ups could behave so badly.”
Paterson and her children, one elementary-schooler and one high-schooler, also discussed what to do if one of the youths’ classmates showed up to school maskless next week. The family decided that the children should try to walk away, although that will become difficult in some situations, given that there is assigned seating in elementary school.
Paterson, 44, said she has already seen comments from other parents on Fairfax schools’ Facebook page vowing that they will be sending in their children without masks no matter what. She said she is unsure what she and her husband will do if masklessness becomes widespread next week — they may consider some alternative form of learning.
“Our kids have already gone through two years of chaos and turmoil,” Paterson said. “This just adds one more level of anxiety for their school day.”
On the opposite side of the debate, someone registered a website this week called “Mask Off Monday” that encourages parents to “declare your freedom from mask mandates.” It offers a step-by-step guide under which parents can contact their school districts to share their unwillingness to keep masking their children.
“You should fully expect to encounter resistance from the communists” — identified elsewhere on the site as the school systems in Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun and Fairfax — “but the Executive Order gives your parental decision precedence over schools and school districts,” the site reads. “We’ll form our own schools if we must.”