Virginia House to quickly take up school mask issue

House Speaker, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, listens to speeches during the Virginia House of Delegates session at the Capitol Monday Jan. 17, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)(AP/Steve Helber)

Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert promised Wednesday that the state’s House of Delegates would vote as soon as possible on a bill that gives families the ability to opt-out of COVID-19 mask mandates issued by school systems.

“Kids can’t wait any longer,” said Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

Gilbert’s statement came after three Democrats in the Democratically-controlled Virginia Senate joined with Republicans to pass the legislation in a 21-17 bipartisan vote.

It now heads to the House, where many Democrats have already said they oppose it.

“This bill is concerning to me on many fronts,” said Democratic Del. and House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, arguing that school systems on the local level should have the option of requiring masks, especially if the pandemic were to flare up again.

“This takes away the local school boards’ ability to enforce a local mask requirement when the community spread is high,” said Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. “In cases of an additional surge, I don’t know that this provides any assurance that these children would be taken care of.”

But in the House, Democrats may have trouble stopping the bill since the Republicans have a 52-48 majority.

Republicans have argued that families should have control over whether their children wear masks. They also claim that masks do little to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students.

If the bill passes in the House, it would then head to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has said that he is eager to sign it into law.

While new laws typically go into effect in July, Youngkin is expected to push for an “emergency clause,” which would cause the law to take effect immediately after he signs it.

Adding that clause would require another vote in both the House and Senate.

Intense debate over the issue of school mask mandates began almost immediately after Youngkin took office last month, when he signed an executive order that said families have the right to opt-out of such mandates if they want.

Youngkin’s order came under legal scrutiny and has been tied up in the courts. An Arlington judge this week issued an order temporarily blocking the executive order regarding mask mandates from being enforced in seven school districts.

Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City, Prince William County and Richmond schools can keep their mask mandates in place, according to the temporary injunction issued by Arlington Circuit Judge Louise M. DiMatteo.

The bill currently making its way through the legislature would effectively override Youngkin’s order and end the debate by turning the language from Youngkin’s order into state law.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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