Va. House passes ban on mask mandates in schools

The Virginia House on Monday followed the lead of the Senate and passed a ban on mask mandates in commonwealth schools.

By a party-line vote of 52-48, the House passed SB739, which allows parents of students to “elect for [their] child to not wear a mask while on school property,” even if it violates mandates passed by local school boards.

The elimination of mask mandates in schools has been a priority for Virginia’s new Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who has cheered on the passage of the bill and said last week that he would sign it.

On his first day in office, Youngkin issued an executive order that would ban all mask mandates across the state. That move was immediately challenged by school boards and parent groups across Virginia and the dispute remains tied up in the courts. The passage of this bill, plus Youngkin’s expected signing, will likely render the matter moot.

In a statement, Youngkin said the General Assembly had taken “a significant step for parents and children” and characterized support for “a parental opt-out of mask mandates in schools” as “widespread and bipartisan.”

He added, “SB 739 will give parents a choice regarding their child’s health, education, upbringing, and care.”

Youngkin said he would add an emergency clause to the bill, which would make it effective immediately if the House and Senate approve. Without the emergency clause, the bill wouldn’t take effect until July 1.

“We’re going to go to work immediately to attach an emergency clause and get it back to you,” Youngkin told House Speaker Todd Gilbert when the speaker delivered the passed bill Monday.

Not so fast, said Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“The conversation is still not over yet,” Farnsworth told WTOP. “The key question for the legislature is when this will take effect.”

Farnsworth said there are court challenges to the bill, as well as the executive order, claiming that the bill usurps the power given to locally elected school boards by the Virginia Constitution and that it violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

“So while this is clearly progress in the direction that the governor wanted,” Farnsworth said, “like so many things in politics, it’s not the end of the story. … I don’t know that these people win in court, but this won’t be resolved until the governor wins in court.”

After a court in Arlington County approved a challenge by seven school systems to Youngkin’s executive order, Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen joined with Republicans to pass legislation banning the mandates. Petersen and two other Democrats joined with Republicans to push the legislation through the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 21-19 advantage.

‘We don’t know what the future holds’

The House rejected several amendments proposed by Democrats, including one from Del. Marcus Simon that would have let the mask provision expire in 2023.

“We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what variants are coming,” Simon said. “Let’s revisit this issue next year, maybe in less politically heated circumstances, maybe without this super urgent rush to give the governor a political win.”

Farnsworth added, “One of the objections that Democrats voted against this measure raised was that the state will not be as capable of responding rapidly to any future dangerous variation and COVID or some other situation comparable to what we’ve been going through the last couple of years.”

Republicans, though, said the mask mandates have thwarted learning. They said communication is muffled and children lose the ability to learn from facial expressions.

“Students are uncomfortable, unable to discern emotions, hear words and communicate clearly. This poses clear challenges to social interaction and mental health,” said Republican Del. Amanda Batten.

Several states across the country have moved in recent days to end school mask mandates, including states controlled by Democrats, including New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware.

WTOP’s Scott Gelman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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