Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took to the pages of The Washington Post on Tuesday to defend his ban on mask mandates in the commonwealth’s schools, a move which is being challenged in court by seven school districts and ignored by more.
In his opinion piece on the battle that has dominated his first two weeks in office, Youngkin sought to redefine the word “mandate.”
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“My executive order ensures that parents can opt out their kids from a school’s mask mandate,” Youngkin wrote. “It bans neither the wearing of masks nor the issuing of mask mandates. Parents can now choose whether wearing a mask at school is right for their child.”
He added that it’s “time to adjust our approach to the coronavirus emergency” while adding Virginia “can keep kids in school, provide a parental opt out to mask mandates, and protect lives and livelihoods.”
But Youngkin argued in the piece that “the practice of silencing parents, the era of divisive partisan politics and the time for statewide mandates are over” while taking swipes at his predecessor, Ralph Northam.
“For the sake of our future generations, we need to recognize the potentially damaging impacts of mask-wearing on some children,” Youngkin wrote.
Several Northern Virginia school systems aren’t having it.
Statewide, seven districts have sued to block Youngkin’s order: Alexandria, Arlington County, the City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Hampton and Prince William County.
Fairfax County’s board of supervisors voted 8-1 Tuesday to support the county school sytsem’s decision to continue to require masks in schools, and sent a letter to Youngkin that “requests that the state develop metrics in coordination with local health directors and school districts to inform when it might be safe to make masks optional in school,” a board of supervisors spokesperson said.
The board’s letter said “it is important for us to be aware of the recommendations of Virginia medical experts and other health professionals.” It adds that the “Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that children ‘continue to wear masks in school while rates of COVID-19 infection remain high.'”
“In addition, a letter from the Health Directors of Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, and Arlington counties and the City of Alexandria firmly endorses multiple mitigation measures, including vaccinations, masking, physical distancing, testing, and quarantine, because ‘no one single measure is perfect,'” the letter stated.
WTOP has contacted Youngkin’s office for comment on the letter.
The Virginia systems’ lawsuit argues the state constitution gives local school boards the authority to run their districts. It also cites a state law that requires school systems to follow federal health guidelines, which include recommendations for universal masking.
In a statement, the Falls Church board said the suit “defends the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff.”
The lawsuit states: “At issue is whether locally-elected school boards will maintain the exclusive authority and responsibility conferred upon them by Article VIII, Section 7 of the Constitution of Virginia to supervise the public schools in their respective school divisions, or whether the Governor can unilaterally infringe upon that authority through an executive order.”
In response to the suit, Youngkin said, “We will continue to protect parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education and care.”
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the administration was disappointed.
“The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education and care, as the legal process plays out,” she said in a statement.
Supporters of the executive order say the state law does not conflict with Youngkin’s executive order because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends mask-wearing and does not mandate it.
Monday’s lawsuit comes after a group of parents in Chesapeake filed a petition last week at the Virginia Supreme Court challenging the executive order.
The Supreme Court justices took no action on the lawsuit last week, and it was not immediately clear when or whether they would do so.
Democrats on Monday commended the school boards that challenged Youngkin on Monday and accused him of using children as political pawns.
“Youngkin is quickly on his way to becoming the most divisive and authoritarian governor in our commonwealth’s long history,” state Sen. Mamie Locke said at a news conference.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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