Virginia’s freshly inaugurated governor, Glenn Youngkin, signed executive orders removing school masking requirements across the state on Saturday afternoon. Since that moment, Arlington and Alexandria school systems have joined Fairfax County Public Schools in reminding families that masking policies remain in place.
Youngkin’s list of day one executive orders put the power to decide if students should wear a mask squarely into the hands of parents across the state.
“A child whose parent has elected that he or she is not subject to a mask mandate should not be required to wear a mask under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education, or any other state authority,” the order said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in response to coverage from WTOP’s Nick Iannelli on Sunday, voiced her support for the move as an Arlington County parent — a title, she noted, newly minted governor Glenn Youngkin does not have.
“Thank you to [Arlington Public Schools] for standing up for our kids, teachers and administrators and their safety in the midst of a transmissible variant,” Psaki wrote.
Hi there. Arlington county parent here (don’t believe you are @GlennYoungkin but correct me if I am wrong). Thank you to @APSVirginia for standing up for our kids, teachers and administrators and their safety in the midst of a transmissible variant. https://t.co/6UeNIYoZCU
— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) Jan. 17, 2022
Virginia Delegate Patrick Hope of Arlington County also responded to Gov. Youngkin’s statement in a discussion with WTOP. He said that the state’s governor has “no authority at all” to determine how mask mandates operate at individual school systems.
“We are governed by the Virginia code,” Hope told WTOP. “And the Virginia code states very clearly that school districts should adhere by the CDC’s recommendations.”
“No authority at all.” Delegate Patrick Hope of Arlington County responds to Governor Youngkin who said he may use state resources to try to force the county’s school system to comply with his order – which effectively removes school mask mandates. @WTOP @HopeforVirginia pic.twitter.com/Z6ZoFGQ9yp
— Nick Iannelli (@NickWTOP) January 16, 2022
Less than 12 hours after Virginia’s first Republican governor since 2009 entered office and signed those executive orders, Arlington Public Schools announced that their mask mandates are still in effect.
Citing the state’s bipartisan Senate Bill 1303, the school system said that students would remain bound to mask requirements within their bounds. The bill, signed into law in early 2021, encourages in-person instruction using mitigation strategies provided by the Centers for Disease Control. Those strategies continue to include mask-wearing for those ages two and up.
“Arlington Public Schools implemented our mask requirement this school year prior to Gov. Northam’s K-12 mask mandate, and we will continue to make decisions that prioritize the health, safety and well-being of our students and staff, following the guidance of local and national health professionals,” the system wrote in a statement.
Alexandria City schools followed suit, saying they would also be keeping their mask requirement in place.
“ACPS will continue to abide by the health and safety guidelines of the CDC and the Alexandria Health Department and continue to require all individuals to wear masks that cover the nose and mouth in ACPS schools, facilities and buses,” the school system said on Twitter.
Nearby Fairfax County Public Schools said while it is reviewing the governor’s order, right now its universal mask mandate does remain in place.
“Our layered prevention strategies have proven effective in keeping transmission rates low in our schools, and we will continue to use data and science to guide our decision-making,” FCPS said in a statement.
Responding to a question posed by WTOP’s Nick Ianelli — who has been traveling with the governor for inauguration weekend — Youngkin said he would use state resources to force the school systems to comply, though he did not specify how.
Exclusive: Gov. Youngkin on Arlington school system saying it will require masks, despite Youngkin’s order stating that schools can’t do that. He threatened to use state resources to force schools to comply — but we still don’t know what that means exactly. @WTOP https://t.co/5Lijz9kbgd pic.twitter.com/SnC4dcCIar
— Nick Iannelli (@NickWTOP) Jan. 16, 2022
“We wrote the order specifically to give all the school systems, basically, eight days to get ready — to listen to parents,” Youngkin said. “Over the course of this week, I hope they will listen to parents because we will use every resource within the governor’s authority to explore what we can and will do to ensure parents’ rights are protected.”
While the statements from the school systems do cite the text of current Virginia law and remain active throughout the coming school week, they aren’t without challenge — though no district has made its plans to fight this new executive order clear.
Only one school system in the metropolitan area has issued a statement acknowledging a shift in mask requirements by Jan. 24. That system in Stafford County said that it will continue enforcing mask mandates until the order takes effect and that it has other mitigation strategies in place.
“We must recognize that constant change and uncertainty are difficult for some to process, and that consistency must be maintained to the greatest extent possible,” Superintendent Thomas W. Taylor said in a statement from Stafford County Public Schools.
Across Virginia, school systems like Henrico County have continued to update or embolden their policies ahead of the Jan. 24 policy change date. However, Loudoun and Prince William counties have not released statements regarding the mask mandates for their public school systems.
If the other public school systems decide to continue their mask mandates after that date, they will enter direct conflict with this statewide directive — it remains unclear what could arise from decisions to disobey the executive order.
The Virginia governor’s day one signature across eleven executive actions on Saturday included other contentious items like the state’s climate change infrastructure and a plan to combat critical race theory in public education.
WTOP’s Nick Ianelli and Zeke Hartner contributed to this report.