The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin’s mask-optional order divides Virginia schools and parents, threatening chaos

A protester holds a homemade sign at a rally in Loudoun County in September. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

A level of statewide chaos unprecedented in recent memory is looming for Virginia schools, as a new Republican governor prepares to enforce a mask-optional mandate on Monday that many superintendents and parents have vowed to fight, or to uphold, with all the ammunition they can muster.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is just more than a week into his governorship, issued an executive order on his first day in office delegating to parents the decision on whether children wear masks at school. The order, which contravenes federal health guidance and masking requirements maintained by the vast majority of Virginia school districts throughout the coronavirus pandemic, is in keeping with Youngkin’s campaign promise to give parents greater control over all aspects of their children’s education.

The order is supposed to take effect Monday for all of Virginia’s roughly 130 school districts and more than 1.5 million public and private schoolchildren. But it has already plunged Youngkin into a bitter war with significant swaths of the public school system: Within days of the order’s announcement, superintendents in the suburbs just outside D.C. and in Youngkin’s new home, Richmond, promised to keep requiring masks. In response, Virginia’s lieutenant governor said Youngkin could pull funding from disobedient districts. A group of parents also sued to reverse the order, and Youngkin filed to dismiss their suit.

Experts predict cascading legal and political challenges to come. “The governor [is] throwing jet fuel on an already divisive culture clash in Virginia,” said Mark Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, “and inviting lawsuits that will now consume much of his administration.”

Va. Gov. Youngkin’s assertive first week in office leaves Republicans jubilant, Democrats fuming

In the meantime, nobody knows exactly what will happen Monday. In online forums over the weekend, pro- and anti-mask parents fought battles in comment sections, with some vowing to demonstrate outside schools in favor of masks, while others said they would protest them. For his part, Youngkin advised parents this weekend to listen to their school principals — though he has also said he believes the courts will rule in his favor.

All this means children will leave home Monday morning, some of them mask-free, to take seats in classrooms where many will be asked to put their masks back on — setting up immediate conflict between teachers and parents who could be picketing outside. All the while, school superintendents are issuing statements vowing to discipline children who show up maskless, including at least one promising to bar them from in-person learning. And the governor, through a spokeswoman, has vowed to “use every resource” available to get the mandate enforced.

Some Virginians are jubilant. Some are terrified. But most everybody is anticipating a mess — apparently including the governor, who tweeted a plea for order on Saturday: “I urge everyone to love your neighbor” come Monday.

“We advised our members to report students and staff who don’t want to wear their masks,” said Kimberly Adams, head of the 4,000-strong Fairfax Education Association. “It should be on them to back us up. … Now it’s just a waiting game to see what happens.”

Added Allison Glatfelter, a parent to three in Arlington County Public Schools who supports masking: “I do worry about … a teacher having to face conflict with a parent, because it becomes unavoidable. I would hate for my kids to see that.”

The parents who are pushing for masks to be optional say that face coverings are ineffective, uncomfortable for children and impede learning. This group has spent the past week organizing, with some of them — including at least one state senator, Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) — promising to hold what they’re calling a Mask Free Peaceful Walk-In with their children Monday. Others registered a new website, Mask Off Monday, that offers parents instructions on how they can tell school officials they will be keeping their children maskless.

“We have a group here in Loudoun that is very excited to go to school on Monday with no masks,” Loudoun County parent Megan Rafalski told NBC4 on Friday. “We had a meeting last night, there were 100-plus people there.”

As of Sunday, a patchwork of masking policies remained in place across the state, after school boards voted this past week to either adopt or defy Youngkin’s masking order. Some of the masking debates became quite heated, including in rural Page County, where a parent was charged by police after threatening to bring “every single gun loaded and ready” if the board didn’t make masking optional.

The Page board did ultimately vote to make masking optional — as did other school boards, many but not all of them in areas that are less densely populated and more conservative. School systems that have promised to obey Youngkin’s mask-optional order include those in Spotsylvania County, Bedford County and Virginia Beach.

But other school systems — including those in Fairfax County, Loudoun, Arlington, Alexandria and Richmond — are swearing that children who show up to school Monday will have to do so wearing masks. The furor reached the White House when press secretary Jen Psaki, calling herself an Arlington Public Schools parent, offered support for the district’s masking stance on social media.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) threatened on Fox News that Youngkin could withhold state funding from defiant districts. Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said later that the governor would “consider the tools available” to enforce his mask-optional order, without elaborating.

One of the most outspoken opponents of the governor’s order has been Jason Kamras, the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools.

“I just can’t fathom the threat of withholding $ from VA divisions like [mine] that are protecting the lives of students and staff with a 4-inch piece of cloth,” Kamras wrote in a recent tweet.

Va. parents file lawsuit, schools vow resistance against Youngkin’s order making masks optional

Most school officials who say they are keeping mask mandates have been reticent to reveal what they will actually do to discipline children who show up without a mask on Monday.

A spokesman for Arlington Public Schools would not answer a question asking about possible punishment over the weekend. The superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools said only that “any student or staff who arrives without a mask will be provided one by the school” in a message Friday to families.

Loudoun Public Schools spokesman Wayde Byard said school officials will tell any maskless student to immediately don a mask, and will provide a mask if the student lacks one. If the student keeps refusing, Byard said, staff will meet with them one-on-one and contact the student’s parents or guardian to discuss the reasons the student wishes to remain mask-free.

“If noncompliance is related to medical or financial need, the school-based team will develop a plan of action to support the student’s compliance with the [masking] requirement,” Byard said.

Fairfax County Public Schools, whose 180,000 students make it the largest district in Virginia, was the only system to offer much detail: Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand wrote in a message to families late Friday that failure to wear a mask will be treated like a dress code violation, as has been the case throughout the pandemic.

Dress code violations can lead to “counseling, loss of privileges, removal from class or activities, or disciplinary action,” according to Fairfax’s policy posted online. Another school regulation on masking adopted during the pandemic says that students who refuse to mask up may be “precluded access to face-to-face instructional programming until they comply.”

Brabrand wrote in his message that he is optimistic “our students will arrive at school on Tuesday with their masks in place. If not, we will follow the [district’s] regulation, but we will do so with sensitivity and compassion.” (Fairfax is holding a long-planned teacher workday on Monday.)

He closed with a request for parents: “We know that not everyone will agree with this course of action, however, we ask that appropriate avenues be used to voice any disagreement so that children and school staff who are following division policy are not put in a difficult position.”

Around the same time Brabrand sent his dress code message, Youngkin’s office issued a statement and a 14-page set of guidelines that purported to clarify how school systems and parents should obey his guidance.

Mask-wearing is included on a list of things parents can do to keep children safe, reaffirming that masking should be the parents’ choice while also suggesting that the governor believes parents should keep their children masked at school.

In the statement accompanying the guidelines, Youngkin said he believes the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in his favor in the parents’ lawsuit challenging the mask-optional order. Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), said the office is optimistic the state Supreme Court will issue a ruling this coming week on the lawsuit. She also confirmed there is a bill in the works to codify Youngkin’s order into law.

Across the region’s schools, a wildly varied treatment of masks

But several school districts have already instructed their staff — including principals — to tell children to stay masked on Monday. Asked whether Youngkin meant to encourage parents to obey principals who tell children to wear masks, thus defying the governor’s own executive order, spokeswoman Porter did not directly answer. Instead she re-sent a statement from the governor reading in part: “I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process.”

Asked how the governor will respond to school officials’ promised punishment of students who choose not to wear masks, Porter said Sunday, “We are disappointed Fairfax County officials have chosen to discipline students over parents rights.”

In Fairfax, Frazier O’Leary IV said he is unsure how this coming week will go for his teenage son, a high school freshman.

O’Leary, a 50-year-old conservative Republican, said he supports Youngkin’s mask-optional order. But O’Leary thinks mask-wearing should be his son’s choice, not his.

O’Leary said the teenager likes to wear a mask in the hallways, where it can get really crowded, but has said he would prefer to remove it during class, when he feels safe seated at a decent distance from classmates.

“He’s a relatively straight rule-follower, and I think the nearest rule to him is probably the school’s masking rule,” O’Leary said of his son. “But I’m going to let him make his own decision.”

And then, like the rest of Virginia, O’Leary will wait and see what happens.

Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.