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Virginia school districts drop mask mandates — many reluctantly — to comply with new state law

A discarded mask lies on the grounds of Park View High School in Loudoun County. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Virginia school districts are dropping their mask mandates in obedience to a state law enacted this week that allows parents to decide whether their children wear masks at school.

The bill, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed into law Wednesday, states that school districts must make masking optional starting March 1. It marks a major and hard-fought victory for the governor, who issued an executive order on his first day in office making masks optional — only to see more than half of Virginia’s 131 districts defy the order by continuing to require face coverings. Most districts have maintained mask mandates throughout the pandemic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends masking for everyone in schools over age 2.

School boards for seven of the state’s largest and most prominent districts sued to reverse Youngkin’s mask optional order, arguing it violated the Virginia Constitution and a state law passed last year that says school districts have to comply to the “maximum extent practicable” with federal health recommendations.

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But faced with the new mask-optional law, even the districts that most strongly resisted Youngkin’s push for mask-optionality are buckling and announcing they will make masks optional.

At least five of the seven districts whose school boards sued — those in Prince William County, Arlington, Richmond, Hampton City and Falls Church City — have either gone mask-optional or are planning to do so by March 1. Another district that sued, Alexandria City Public Schools, has not yet announced how it is reacting to the law.

The final plaintiff in the suit, Fairfax County Public Schools, whose roughly 179,000 students make it the largest district in the state, is still requiring masks for now — and it is not clear when the mask mandate will lift. In a message to families Friday, Superintendent Scott Brabrand did not directly say whether the district would comply with the law.

Brabrand mentioned the law’s passage and wrote that “we recognize our legal obligations and will maintain our commitment to the health and safety of our students and staff.” He wrote that staff were already planning to roll back some pandemic safety measures, that he is optimistic community transmission of the virus will continue to decrease in the near future — and hopeful that the CDC will update its public health guidance soon.

“We will share updates as we receive them,” Brabrand wrote. “Please be aware that we are currently still in high transmission and all of our layered prevention strategies, including universal masking, remain in place.”

A Fairfax spokeswoman on Friday did not answer a question asking whether parents in the county will be allowed to opt out of masking on March 1.

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Youngkin signed the bill into law on Wednesday with a ceremony on the steps of the Capitol portico, positioning schoolchildren and Republican legislators behind him as he signed. He has since used the victory as a springboard to push other campaign promises, telling a crowd in Chesapeake on Thursday: “Yesterday we stood up for parents — today we’re cutting taxes.”

Youngkin expressed hope during the bill-signing festivities that “this will put everything to bed” — a reference to legal challenges to his mask-optional order. In its short life, the order spawned at least five related lawsuits from parents and school districts seeking to stop or support it. He is not likely to get his wish. In a tweet on Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia responded, “We’ll see you in court.”

The nonprofit organization had challenged Youngkin’s executive order in federal court, saying it violates the rights of students with disabilities by denying them access to their federally guaranteed free, fair and appropriate public education.

Eden Heilman, legal director for the Virginia ACLU, said in an interview Tuesday that the mask-optional law is just as problematic as the executive order and that her group will amend its lawsuit to target the law, too.

Heilman said schools must have the flexibility to accommodate a student who needs universal masking. “The problem with this bill is doesn’t allow school districts to have that nuanced approach ... it basically doesn’t allow school boards to follow federal law,” she said.

Meanwhile, mask mandates are falling throughout the state — in places including Manassas City Public Schools, Loudoun County Public Schools and Henrico County Public Schools, all of which had previously disobeyed Youngkin’s mask-optional executive order. In many places, the switches are coming with clear reluctance.

“As you likely have seen, the Governor has signed a law, effective 3/1, that removes a division’s ability to have a mask mandate,” Richmond Public Schools spokeswoman Sarah Abubaker wrote in an email, adding that “RPS will continue to encourage the use of masks.”

In Arlington Public Schools, which enrolls about 27,000 students, officials presented a slide show to the school board Thursday night, writing in a footnote that masks will become optional March 1.

“APS will continue to require* masks inside our schools to keep schools as safe as possible,” it said. At the bottom of the slide in tiny italic print came the follow-up: “*Senate Bill 739 allows parents to elect for their child to opt out of wearing a mask at school beginning March 1.”

In a later slide, Arlington officials wrote that masking indoors is still recommended by the CDC and that “we have students and staff who have underlying health conditions, are immunocompromised, and are considered high risk.”

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras has been especially vocal in his opposition to Youngkin’s mask-optional executive order — and to the bill making masks optional by March 1.

“[General Assembly], please don’t ban our ability to keep our mask mandate,” he wrote on Twitter days before the legislative body voted along largely partisan lines to approve the law. “I’m very concerned that many families ... will pull their kids out of school if the mandate is eliminated.”

In an email Friday, Abubaker, the Richmond schools spokeswoman, wrote that the school district of about 21,000 will be making masks optional March 1, but that until then “all students are expected to wear a mask.” Abubaker also noted that masks are still required on the bus, per federal law, and that school staffers are required to wear masks “correctly and consistently at all times.”

Abubaker added that parents and caregivers will have to formally request that their student not wear a mask at school by emailing COVIDrps@rvaschools.net, although no family will have to provide any kind of documentation to support the request. She wrote that the school system will respect parents’ personal choices and that the district cannot and will not segregate children by mask status.

She offered a warning, too.

“Not wearing a mask will increase the number of students quarantined from a positive case,” she wrote, because a rule that allows masked children to skip quarantine if they are exposed within three to six feet to a positive case will not apply to unmasked children. “If parents want to limit quarantine risk, continuing to have their child wear a mask (and get their child vaccinated) are the best strategies.”

Some of the most dramatic tussles over the masking law came in Loudoun County, a wealthy and politically diverse area that has been at the center of a high-profile battle over transgender rights, the curriculum and the school district’s handling of the pandemic for more than a year.

In Loudoun, which enrolls about 81,000 students, a group of parents sued their district’s school board and superintendent on Feb. 1 for failing to comply with Youngkin’s order. A hearing in that suit took place on the same day the governor signed the mask-optional bill into law.

Parents and teachers: Tell us about mask policies in your school

Shortly afterward, Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler wrote an email to families announcing that Loudoun was ending its mask mandate in response to the law, effective Feb. 22.

Hours later, though, he was forced to email again with a different update. The judge in the Loudoun parents’ lawsuit had ruled that the school district could not enforce its mask mandate while the suit proceeded. So Ziegler wrote to families and staff — at 9:34 p.m. on Wednesday — that the school district was making masks optional effective “immediately.”

“Starting tomorrow, Thursday, February 17, students may continue to wear masks if they choose to, but masks will not be required,” Ziegler wrote.

Ziegler also wrote that, in accordance with the court’s order, any students who suffered disciplinary consequences for attending school maskless will have those disciplinary actions scrubbed from their records. The school district had suspended at least 29 students for going maskless.

The superintendent included a plea in his email.

“The decision of whether to wear a mask or not is deeply personal for many families,” he wrote. “We ask that you respect the decision of others. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable about their choice.”

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