Judge orders Loudoun Co. schools to lift mask requirement immediately as other districts prepare for changes

Public schools in Virginia’s Loudoun County have a new mask-optional policy in place, Thursday morning, after a judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of three parents who sued the school board for enforcing a mask mandate.

Several Northern Virginia school systems are taking a wait-and-see approach to a new law that bans mask mandates in state schools.

The ruling, late Wednesday by Circuit Court Judge James Fisher immediately barred the county’s public school system from enforcing its mask mandate. Earlier, Wednesday, Loudoun County became the first to roll back restrictions, announcing masks would become option in school beginning Feb. 22.

Fisher sided with the parents, who had argued the mask policy caused their children irreparable harm and that the school board does not have the constitutional authority to implement a mandate, NBC Washington reported.

After the judge’s ruling, Loudoun County Public Schools said that starting Thursday, students may continue to wear masks if they choose to but masks will not be required.

“The decision of whether to wear a mask or not is deeply personal for many families, we ask that you respect the decision of others. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable about their choice,” Superintendent Scott Ziegler said in a letter to the school community.

Students who have faced disciplinary action with compliance with the mask mandate will have those consequences removed from their records, as well, LCPS said.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the legislation, SB739, on Wednesday afternoon, saying at a signing ceremony in Richmond that lawmakers are “reaffirming the rights that we know all parents have.” It enables parents to “elect for [their] child to not wear a mask while on school property,” regardless of guidance from local school boards or state agencies.

School districts have until March 1 to comply. Many have kept mask requirements in schools, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that recommends masks for K-12 students, regardless of vaccination status.

In response to the judge’s decision, Youngkin said in a statement that the judge’s decision “reaffirmed parents’ rights.” Attorney General Jason Miyares said in a separate release that his team helped litigate the case “in defense of parents’ rights and Executive Order Two. ”

“We’re excited that Loudoun has reached this decision. Importantly, the court ordered that any disciplinary action against students who were punished for following their parents’ decision to remove their mask will be expunged from their records,” Youngkin said.

Other school districts prepare for changes

In a letter to families earlier this week, Prince William County Schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade said the school system is reviewing the new law and will have an update on Friday. School Board Chairman Babur Lateef has called for an “off ramp” to masking in the county.

Arlington Schools Superintendent Francisco Duran said in a tweet that the county will present a plan regarding easing mask requirements at Thursday’s school board meeting.

And Fairfax County Public Schools, the state’s largest school system, said in a statement it’s “reviewing what this means for FCPS, as local health metrics continue to improve.” It recently announced a plan to remove its mask requirement once the county reaches seven consecutive days of moderate community transmission as defined by the CDC.

The future of masking in schools has been a contentious issue in recent weeks, with some states such as Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon and Connecticut recently announcing plans to lift masking requirements in school settings.

David Dowdy, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it’s going to be difficult for school systems to enforce mask mandates when transmission gets very low.

“At some point in time, hopefully, COVID-19 will become a sufficiently small public health concern at certain points in time that it doesn’t dictate how we live our lives and how our kids go to school,” Dowdy said.

Parents react

Meanwhile, Christy Hudson, with the Fairfax County Parents Association, a group of more than 2,400 parents, praised the recently-passed masking law because it enables families to “do their own individual risk assessment for their children.”

Hudson’s teenagers, she said, are “definitely ready to be done with the masks.”

“They see that inconsistency where schools are requiring masks, where they’re required to wear these masks when they’re sitting in a classroom with their peers, but then they’re not required to wear these masks right after school when they’re doing sports with the same peers,” Hudson said.

Michelle Cades, president of the Fairfax County Special Education PTA, said that despite improving metrics, making masks optional in schools is premature.

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” Cades said. “I know that it’s exhausting, and that there’s a lot of compassion fatigue, and pandemic fatigue, COVID fatigue, but that doesn’t make the pandemic go away. As much as our school system, and for that matter, our governor and our legislators are trying to make decisions to please the most people they can, none of them are medical professionals or public health experts.”

Josh Folb, a high school math teacher in Arlington, said he fears the new law means the loss of local control. His students have complied with mask requirements, he said, including one who recently approached him apprehensive about the possibility of masks no longer being required in schools.

“The students understand how spread can occur,” Folb said. “Especially now with omicron, they’ve seen their friends get sick. … I’ve had friends who taught in states that didn’t have mask requirements through the entire pandemic, and they told me about how hard that was for them, and the anxiety they had. And, you know, I wonder what that’s going to look like for us.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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