About a week after announcing his executive order making masks optional in schools throughout Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said on a radio show that school districts statewide had rushed to comply.
But a Washington Post analysis shows that the majority of Virginia public school districts — enrolling more than two-thirds of the state’s students — have opted to disobey Youngkin’s mask-optional order. As of Feb. 2, about a week and a half after the order was supposed to take effect, 70 districts, or 53 percent, are still requiring masks for all students inside schools. Cumulatively, those districts enroll 855,008 students, or about 68 percent of the state’s public school student population. The divide falls along partisan lines, although not perfectly: Almost every district that opted to make masks optional is in a locality that voted for Youngkin in the 2021 gubernatorial election.
The widespread defiance suggests Youngkin will have enormous difficulty in enforcing his mask-optional mandate, which is already the subject of two lawsuits: one from parents in Chesapeake, and one from seven school boards that oversee some of the state’s largest, most prominent school districts. A hearing on the second suit is scheduled for next week. Youngkin has said he will use every tool at his disposal to carry out his order as those cases wind through the court system, and his spokeswoman did not rule out disciplining disobedient districts by yanking their state funding.
It also raises serious doubts about the viability of Youngkin’s intense focus — both on the campaign trail and in his first days as governor — on the nation’s education culture wars, including his push for greater parental control over every aspect of education, from masking to which books appear on library shelves to the content of curriculums.
“These findings lay bare the absurdity of the governor’s claims that he is listening to the parents,” said Mark Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “Most disagree with what he is doing. He seems to be listening primarily to the parents of a particular political stripe — the ones who made the most noise in the heat of a political campaign but in no way represent a consensus among parents of public school children.”
Asked about The Post’s analysis, Youngkin said in a statement, “If localities want to have a mask mandate, they absolutely are able to. However, parents have a right to opt out. They know what is best for their kids.”
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter added, “Localities are fighting over something they already have the ability to do and Virginia has continually sidestepped the importance of parent and student rights. Governor Youngkin is simply giving students and parents an opt-out of mask mandates.”
Youngkin’s directive took effect for districts across Virginia on Jan. 24. Even in the suburban D.C. localities where officials promised to keep the mask mandate in place and sued to protect their authority to do so, initial reporting suggested the day went smoothly for students and teachers. In Loudoun County, a politically divided and wealthy suburb, small groups of parents showed up to two campuses with maskless children Monday and stayed outside picketing when administrators isolated those students.
The Post analysis is based on a review of the websites and social media accounts for all 131 Virginia school districts listed by the Virginia Department of Education as operational for the 2021-2022 school year. Where school district information on masking was unavailable, The Post contacted districts or relied on local media coverage, or both. Enrollment counts are drawn from 2021-2022 data gathered and published by the Virginia Education Department, and localities’ results in the gubernatorial election are taken from The Post’s coverage.
The Post analysis found that 60 districts, or 46 percent, have so far agreed to make masks optional in obedience to Youngkin’s order. Cumulatively, those districts enroll 402,341 students, according to Virginia Education Department data, representing 32 percent of all public school students in the state.
One district in Virginia, Sussex County Public Schools, has not published any information on the issue, leaving its stance unclear. The Post has contacted this district and will update its database if and when answers emerge.
Republican-leaning districts showed more willingness to comply with Youngkin’s masking order: In 98 percent of cases where school districts opted to make masks optional, their locality went for Youngkin in the election.
“This breakdown clearly shows how partisan the issue of education has become” during the pandemic, said Todd Belt, director of George Washington University’s graduate school political management program. “The original issue with schools — reopening — wasn’t terribly partisan. But issues surrounding schools became more partisan with the flap over critical race theory and as vaccine skepticism has become more politically polarized.”
Still, districts in Republican-leaning, Youngkin-voting localities also make up the majority — 56 percent — of districts that voted to keep requiring masks in schools. This suggests that Republican school systems and parents may be less willing to follow Youngkin’s lead on masking than the governor might have expected, and it confirms previous polling statewide that indicated that most Virginians support masks as a common-sense pandemic safety measure.
A September 2021 Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 66 percent of public school parents in Virginia supported mask mandates for teachers, staff and students, similar to 69 percent of registered voters overall. The poll also showed that left-leaning Virginians were far more likely to agree with mask requirements: 96 percent of self-identified Democratic voters and 66 percent of independent voters supported school mask mandates, while Republicans were more divided, with 45 percent in support and 51 percent opposed.
Youngkin won in part by campaigning against such mandates, with exit polls showing he performed best with voters who believe that parents should have a lot of say over what their children learn in school, which has become a conservative rallying cry nationwide. But exit polls also revealed little difference in how parents and non-parents voted in Virginia, suggesting Youngkin did not hold uniquely strong appeal with mothers and fathers.
Nationally, a Monmouth University poll from November found that 61 percent of Americans said face masks should be worn by students, teachers and staff in schools in their state, while 34 percent opposed the idea.
Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks Youngkin should stay the course on his masking policies, while vigorously fighting back against the two lawsuits challenging the executive order.
Both suits make essentially the same argument: that Youngkin’s mask-optional order violates the Virginia constitution because it usurps school districts’ constitutionally granted power to oversee school systems. The lawsuits also contend that Youngkin’s order goes against a state law, passed in summer 2021, that requires school districts to comply with federal health guidance “to the maximum extent practicable.” Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend masking inside schools for everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status.
The suit filed by parents is before the Virginia Supreme Court, while the suit filed by the seven school boards is before the Arlington County Circuit Court, which will hold its first hearing on Feb. 2. It is unclear what will happen next. Youngkin and his top officials have said they are confident the Supreme Court will intervene in the governor’s favor and have urged parents to listen to their principals until that happens.
As the courts churn along, Hess said, Youngkin should focus on making his “best arguments” — built on research and science — to Virginia parents and school officials about why they should listen to him. Despite the lawsuits and the opposition from school districts, Hess said, he does not think the governor’s masking order was “a political stumble, not at all,” adding that things could look very different in a few months if the omicron variant of the coronavirus is running less rampant.
“There’s always a natural temptation to try and judge these things in the moment, but we know the way these debates play out in politics,” he said. “What matters is where the dust settles.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, predicted no dust will be settling anytime soon, though.
Farnsworth said he thinks Youngkin’s mask-optional order on his first day in office, coupled with two other executive orders focused on education — one that banned critical race theory, and one that vowed an investigation of the embattled Loudoun County Public Schools system — clearly signal that the governor wants to lean into the education culture wars. And that will spell trouble for Youngkin’s fledgling administration and parents, teachers and schoolchildren across the state, he said.
“Expect the angry confrontations in schools to continue and perhaps to worsen,” Farnsworth said. “Few things are more likely to generate long-term rifts within communities than conflicting rules relating to something as important as the best way to protect the health and safety of children.”
He added: “It didn’t have to be this way.”
Graphics by Chiqui Esteban and Tim Meko. Scott Clement contributed to this report.