Virginia Senate advances bill to ban school mask mandates

Parents in Virginia are a step closer to being able to disregard local school board requirements that their children wear masks in school.

The Virginia state Senate on Tuesday voted to advance a law that would prevent local school boards from implementing a mask requirement in schools. The legislation, which received bipartisan support, passed 29-9.

It will still require another vote in the Senate and a vote in the House of Delegates before heading to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk. Youngkin said in a statement that he would sign the bill.

“I’ll summarize my strategy in three words — return to normalcy,” Sen. Chap Petersen said. “Everything I’m going to be about for the next few weeks is return to normalcy, particularly for children.”

Masking in schools has become a contentious issue in the first weeks of Youngkin’s administration. Shortly after taking office, he signed an executive order that enabled parents to opt out of school mask mandates.

Several Northern Virginia jurisdictions filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the executive order, and a judge last week ruled in favor of the seven school districts, enabling them to keep their mandates in place.

Separately on Monday, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against a group of Chesapeake parents fighting Youngkin’s ban on mask mandates in schools, ruling the parents lacked grounds for the lawsuit.

School boards, parents and public health experts have been split on the issue of masking in schools, with some urging leadership to create an “off-ramp” for mask requirements and others suggesting mask mandates remain until case numbers fall further.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends “universal masking” in its guidelines for K-12 schools. However, governors in four states have announced plans to end mandates in the coming weeks.

The new legislation, which Petersen created as an amendment to Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant’s bill regarding in-person learning, says: “Not withstanding any other provision of law or any regulation, rule, or policy implemented by a school board, school division, school official, or other state or local authority, the parent of any child enrolled in a public elementary or secondary school, or in any school-based early childhood care and education program, may elect for such child to not wear a mask while on school property.”

It adds, “A parent making such an election shall not be required to provide a reason or any certification of the child’s health or education status. No student shall suffer any adverse disciplinary or academic consequences as a result of this parental election.”

Petersen on Monday sent a letter to Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand, saying school mask requirements don’t correlate with community health.

Dunnavant, who is also a physician, said data doesn’t support school masking as a mitigation measure.

“I know that this has been scary and emotionally evocative, and all of us have lost friends and neighbors,” Dunnavant said. “But you cannot make decisions that have negative outcomes for children based on anxiety when the science doesn’t support it. And that’s where we are.”

If the bill gets passed, it wouldn’t go into effect until July 1. However, a source close to Youngkin said he can add an emergency clause to the bill, which would make it effective immediately after another House and Senate vote.

Currently, masks are still required in all Northern Virginia school systems. Virginia hasn’t had a statewide indoor mask mandate since former Gov. Ralph Northam lifted it in May 2021.

In a statement, Youngkin said, “In an overwhelming bipartisan show of support, the Senate of Virginia took a significant step today for parents and children. I applaud Senator Petersen’s amendment to give parents the right to decide whether their children should wear masks in schools.”

Petersen said the new law could be passed and in place by March 1.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, you know, this is several weeks down the road, we don’t need to think about it.’ What I want people to say is a bipartisan majority of elected leaders have said It’s time to end the match mandate and have parental option,” Petersen said. “And hopefully, the school boards will start moving to accommodate that.”

WTOP’s Rick Massimo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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