A judge has granted seven Virginia school districts a restraining order against Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s ban on mask mandates.
Judge Louise DiMatteo, of the Arlington County Circuit Court, issued a temporary restraining order against Youngkin’s ban, which went into effect Jan. 24 and has been the subject of lawsuits from school systems and parents’ groups ever since.
In her 10-page ruling, DiMatteo agreed with the school boards of Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton Roads, Prince William County and Richmond City that mask mandates should stay in place while the matter continues to be worked out in court.
The decision, which allows mask mandates implemented by school boards to remain in place, hinged on several factors.
The judge said the school boards “will likely succeed” on their claim that Youngkin’s executive order conflicted with, and could not supersede, Virginia law.
The law says that school boards must “provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The CDC recommends “universal indoor masking” in K-12 schools.
“On this pivotal point, the Court concludes that the Governor cannot” override local school officials, the judge wrote in her ruling.
DiMatteo also said that the schools would suffer irreparable harm if the order went into effect before it could be worked out in court, and that the “balance of equities” was in favor of the school systems’ keeping in place the rules that have been in effect all year.
“Keeping rules in place that have been established over the school year helps children, families and staff understand how they may be impacted during the pandemic. Without a restraining order, children and staff would have to reassess certain health conditions they believe are impacted by a mask policy (any mask policy), having relied upon a universal mask mandate implemented by the School Boards,” DiMatteo wrote in her ruling.
In a joint statement, the seven school districts pointed out that they educate a total of 350,000 children, and said the order “allows schools to continue to protect the health and well-being of all students and staff” while the legal process continues.
The systems said Youngkin’s order put student health at risk, overrode the authority given to school boards in the Virginia constitution and attempted to “reverse a lawfully adopted statute.”
Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at University of Mary Washington, said executive orders don’t trump state law, and “that’s why this case was never going to have a happy ending for the governor.”
“You still have a lot of differences in how different school districts are going to handle things,” Farnsworth said. “But for most of the school districts in Northern Virginia, who were many of them a part of this lawsuit, this will allow the school district to do what they wanted to do from the start, which is retain the mask mandate.”
Writing about his move last month in The Washington Post, Youngkin tried to redefine the word “mandate,” saying he hadn’t banned mandates but rather had ordered that parents didn’t have to follow them if they didn’t want to.
On Friday, Youngkin’s spokeswoman, Macaulay Porter, said in a statement, “The governor will never stop fighting for parents’ ability to choose what is best for their children. The governor often said that this is not a pro-mask or anti-mask debate. It’s about parents knowing what’s best for their child’s health, and opting out should there be a mask mandate.
More voices, including from the scientific and medical community, call into question the efficacy behind a universal mask mandate for children. This is about what’s best for their kids’ health and who can best make that decision. We are going to appeal; this is just the first step in the judicial process.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jason Miyares said, “We are disappointed that the trial court did not fully agree with our interpretation of the law and we are preparing to appeal today’s ruling.”
Stella Pekarsky, chair of the Fairfax County School Board, said she was “definitely pleased and cautiously optimistic that this temporary restraining order will become permanent.”
Pekarsky said “the vast majority of people I’ve spoken to” support universal masking. “There are parents who are really exhausted, and they want things to go back to normal, which I understand — I’ve got five kids of my own.”
She said the day was coming when “we can all do away with the masks. But we have got to do it in accordance and in partnership with our health experts.”
She added that the conflict of the governor’s with the locally elected school board was an important one. “We are locally elected decision makers. And we’re held accountable to our constituents. … The separation of powers, the constitutional authority vested in us as locally elected officials — it really gets to the heart of our democracy.”
Pekarsky said her message to parents who wanted the mandates gone would be “I understand there is a difference of opinions. And I respect that. But at the end of the day, you know, we have to follow the rule of law. And I think the decision today is what we need to go. It’s extremely important that we model that for our students.”
WTOP’s Scott Gelman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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