The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin fuels a culture war and puts schools at risk

People gather to support continuing a school mask mandate outside the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Va., on Jan. 18. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The best way to keep schools open during the pandemic is to make them as safe as possible from the predations of a highly transmissible virus, and one way to do that is to ensure that students, faculty and staff wear masks. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who issued an order forbidding mask mandates, and now holds out the possibility that he would withhold funding from school systems that retain them, is threatening schools’ ability to welcome children in person when coronavirus cases spike — as they have and may well do again.

Mr. Youngkin, a Republican, is also ignoring a state law that requires school districts to adhere to federal health guidelines. Those guidelines, as promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urge masking in K-12 schools.

The governor’s contempt for the law is matched by his disdain for Virginia’s constitution, which specifies that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.” According to a tally by The Post, at least 58 of those school districts, nearly half of Virginia’s roughly 130, support mask mandates inside schools.

Those school systems comprise the state’s vast majority of schools, and of students. A group of seven of them — including the state’s two largest districts, in Fairfax and Prince William counties, in Northern Virginia — have sued the governor to block his mask-optional mandate, which took effect on Monday.

“This issue at heart is about local control," said Stella Pekarsky, who chairs Fairfax’s school board. “The governor is not a part of our local government. We do not work for the governor. He does not tell us what to do.”

With his order, the governor is pandering to a minority of parents who regard mask mandates as an infringement on their liberty. Mr. Youngkin has parroted that viewpoint by saying that mask-wearing by students should be up to parents.

In fact, most Virginians disagree with the governor’s disrespect for the advice of public health experts and pediatricians, including Virginia’s own chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which released a statement “strongly” recommending that students wear masks after Mr. Youngkin issued his executive order. Last September, when the virus seemed in retreat, a poll found more than 70 percent of Virginians favored a mask mandate in the schools.

The governor, who took office on Jan.15, chose to fan the flames of a culture war. As a middle-ground position, he could have rescinded the order of his predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam, while leaving the decision on mask mandates to school districts themselves. Instead, he has fomented chaos across the commonwealth, with parents protesting outside schools and students arriving without masks, only to be disciplined or, in some instances, prevented from attending class by school officials.

Over the weekend, Mr. Youngkin tweeted that everyone should “listen to school principals.” That suggested he might be backtracking, yet at the same time his office said he would enforce his mask-optional order by all means available. If and when covid-19 cases spike again, forcing school closures, the governor will share the blame.