Calling it “a win for all Virginians,” Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday signed into law a long-promised ban on mask mandates in the commonwealth’s schools.
The bill, SB739, allows parents to “elect for [their] child to not wear a mask while on school property,” regardless of any COVID-19 protection mandates passed by local school boards or issued by state agencies.
At the signing ceremony in Richmond, Youngkin said of the move, “We are reaffirming the rights that we know all parents have,” citing “parents’ rights to make decisions for their children.”
Also speaking at the signing ceremony, student Breonna McAllister said that though “My teacher been there to help … it is hard to breathe in [a] mask. It’s hard to hear my teacher and it has been hard to connect and make friends.”
The bill passed the Virginia Senate on a bipartisan 21-19 vote last week and a party-line 52-48 vote in the House on Monday.
Under regular rules, the bill wouldn’t go into effect until July 1, but the General Assembly passed a Youngkin amendment that lets the law go into effect immediately, and gives school districts until March 1 to comply.
‘That’s what Virginia is all about’
In an interview with Fox News, Youngkin noted that Democrats were key to the bill’s passage and that he was pleased to see it draw bipartisan support.
“If you choose your child shouldn’t wear a mask, you can make that decision, and if you want your child to wear a mask, you can make that decision as well. And that’s what Virginia is all about,” he said.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican and a key supporter of the ban, began her remarks at the signing by telling the crowd of parents, children and lawmakers, “I want to start by saying how wonderful it is to see your beautiful faces.”
She said “It is time to stop putting kids last” and claimed, “Decisions about protecting yourself in health are never made well globally, because we’re all different.”
“Parents make the decisions for their children; the political entities need to get out,” the senator said. “Parents … you talk to your doctors all the time; you can read what the recommendations are, and you can look at the complexity of your child and decide what’s right.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in schools.
The constitutionality of the bill has been challenged in court, since it takes away powers that have been traditionally given to locally elected school boards.
There was a brief discussion Wednesday on the House of Delegates floor about whether it’s constitutional to enact legislation on an emergency basis by a simple majority vote.
Typically it requires a 4/5th supermajority of each body of the General Assembly to enact a law on an emergency basis for it to take immediate effect. But if the legislature passes a bill and the governor amends it, such amendments are adopted by a simple majority vote.
Democratic Del. Marcus Simon found a 2010 precedent from former Republican Speaker Bill Howell indicating that governors can’t do an end run around the supermajority rules simply by adding an emergency clause amendment.
But Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert overruled Simon’s objection. Gilbert cited numerous examples in the past two years when then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, amended bills to add an emergency clause and the legislature accepted them on a majority vote.
Simon has said he expects a court challenge on the question.
Youngkin tried to ban mask mandates by executive order last month, on his first day in office. The move was immediately greeted with lawsuits by parent groups and school boards across the commonwealth. An Arlington County judge has sided with those groups against the executive order, and the issue remains tied up in the courts.
At that point, moderate Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen joined with Republicans to pass legislation giving parents the final decision on whether their children wear masks to school.
Petersen and two other Democrats joined with Republicans to push the legislation through the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 21-19 advantage.
In a statement Wednesday, Petersen said, “I listened closely to my colleagues in the Democratic Caucus and spoke with the governor directly about incorporating their comments into the final version of SB 739. We achieved some of the requested edits but not all.”
Petersen said he was “glad that the Petersen Amendment on ‘parental option’ for student masking was kept in the bill” and added, that the final bill “allows the governor to reimpose mandatory mitigation measures if absolutely necessary.”
“We are in a different world than we were two years ago,” Petersen added. “The vaccine works and is widely available. Universal mask mandates, especially for children who are healthy and vaccinated, is an onerous and outdated measure that will now end on March 1.”
The final passage Wednesday in the GOP-controlled House came on a party-line 52-48 vote.
Passage and signing of the bill won’t stop Arlington court case, but makes it rather an academic question for parents.
The bill specifies “public” schools; WTOP has asked spokespeople for Youngkin and Virginia’s Department of Education and Department of Health what the rules are for private schools.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.