Using words such as “illegal” and “authoritarian,” a group of Virginia Democrats and parents of schoolchildren gathered in Richmond on Monday to criticize Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order dropping mask mandates in the commonwealth’s schools, and saying it would disrupt the very return to in-person learning that all sides want to achieve.
“If we want to keep our children in schools, we have to keep them safe,” said Sen. Barbara Favola at the news conference Monday, pointing out that Virginia law calls for schools to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including masks.
On Youngkin’s first day in office, he issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates. The executive order went into effect Monday; Youngkin is being sued by parents across Virginia, and seven school boards — Alexandria, Arlington County, the City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Hampton and Prince William County — filed suit earlier Monday.
Multiple systems said last week they’ll ignore Youngkin’s order.
Sen. Mamie Locke noted that Youngkin has threatened to cut money from school districts who leave mandates in place: “He will use every resource at his disposal to enforce his illegal mandate,” she said.
Locke added that Youngkin, after a little more than a week in office, was “quickly on his way to establishing the most divisive and authoritarian government in our commonwealth’s history.”
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, whose district includes Prince William County, one of the districts that has sued Youngkin, accused the governor of appeasing the “extreme far right wing of the Republican Party instead of putting our children first.”
Guzman noted that Youngkin said the purpose of his executive order was to empower parents.
“Well, I’m a parent too,” Guzman said. “And I can tell you I want my children and their peers and their school staff wearing masks.”
A couple of parents and a teacher joined the news conference on Monday.
Melanie Cornelisse, from Chesapeake, one of the 13 parents who started the lawsuit, pointed out that the Virginia Educators Association and other parents have filed suits. “There’s a lot of momentum here. We’re not alone anymore.”
Amber Bowmer, another of the Chesapeake parents, said the order “puts an undue burden on the entire school system,” adding that teachers and staff have to keep track of who is and isn’t wearing a mask each day, and essentially doing away with contact tracing.
“Teachers are being asked to work as if things are normal. … Things are not normal,” Bowmer said. “It’s just unbearable. And to think that they’re putting their lives on the line for something as simple as wearing a mask.”
‘Listen to a principal’
Speaking on WRVA radio Monday, Youngkin urged patience and asked parents to listen to their children’s school principals for the time being.
“Listen to a principal today. And I know that there are some school systems that are doing things that are inconsistent with respecting the rights of parents. … Let’s respect it right now and let this legal process play out,” he said.
Youngkin seemed to acknowledge the possibility of conflict, saying: “This is not a moment for us to forget that we’re all in the same boat and love one another.”
‘The best interests of our students’
In a message to parents, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said he hoped the lawsuit will allow for a swift resolution of the conflict between the governor and local boards that believe a mask mandate is a necessary public health measure.
“It is imperative that decisions about education and school safety are made locally in order to champion the best interests of our students and community,” Brabrand said.
Supporters of the executive order say the state law is not in conflict with Youngkin’s executive order because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends mask-wearing and does not mandate it.
Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Petarsky told The Associated Press the existing mask mandate has allowed the school system to maintain in-person learning throughout the school year.
“We have held trend transmission levels low,” she said. “We have not had to shut a single school because of COVID. We’ve kept our kids in the classroom, and we’re going to do everything in our power to ensure that we continue that.”
The state Supreme Court took no action on the lawsuit last week, and it was not immediately clear whether they would do so Monday.
The Associated Press and WTOP’s Will Vitka contributed to this report.