Steve Helber/AP Photo
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks while his wife, Suzanne, listens after swearing in his Cabinet at the Mansion at the Capitol, Saturday Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond, Va. He issued a series of immediate executive orders, including one that ends the commonwealth's masking requirement in schools.
Steve Helber/AP Photo
Within hours of taking office on Saturday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin ended the state's mask requirement in schools – part of a flurry of executive orders signaling a new era in Virginia politics and continuing the emphasis on education issues that appears to have ushered the first-time candidate into office.
Youngkin's executive order stipulates that "parents, not the government" would determine whether students would wear a mask in schools. But the move drew immediate defiance from Northern Virginia school districts, several of which say they plan to continue requiring masks despite the order from Richmond.
School officials in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax sent messages to families over the weekend saying that their policies would remain in effect.
"Arlington Public Schools implemented our mask requirement this school year prior to Governor [Ralph] Northam's K-12 mask order, and we will continue to make decisions that prioritize the health, safety and wellbeing of our students and staff, following the guidance of local, state and national health professionals," reads the school district's statement.
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand told parents that the district is reviewing Youngkin's order, but would continue universal masking in the meantime. "Adhering to our layered prevention strategies, especially universal masking, keeps our schools open and safe places for students to learn," he wrote.
In Alexandria City Public Schools, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. sent a letter to families on Sunday that made clear the school system would keep its masking requirement. He added that the district will distribute KN95 masks to students and staff.
Officials in Richmond, Henrico County, and several other jurisdictions across the commonwealth have also said they plan to continue enforcing mask mandates.
But Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means localities do not have powers outside of those specifically enumerated by the state. It's not clear if the end of the statewide mandate could ultimately compel unwilling school districts to remove their masking requirements.
In defending their decisions, officials in both Fairfax and Arlington pointed to SB 1303, a law passed by the General Assembly last year that requires schools provide in-person schooling.
Part of its text says schools must "provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
The CDC currently recommends "universal indoor masking" for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status.
Lawmakers who passed the bipartisan bill have disagreed on its interpretation according to party lines.
"It will take a lawsuit to flesh out the judicial interpretation of those lines in Senate Bill 1303," Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg – an Henrico County Democrat and a high school teacher who supports masking in schools – told WJLA. "And I think you'll see it play out in the courts, but ultimately the school year will probably be over by the time that fight plays out."
One parent group that supports masking in schools, Loudoun 4 All, predicted that while the order is playing out in the legal system, "it will create chaos as parents send their unmasked children to school in defiance of local policy."
On Saturday, Youngkin responded sharply to the Arlington school system's decision to maintain its mandate.
"If there's one thing that hopefully everybody heard in November, is it is time to listen to parents," he said, according to a video posted on Twitter by a WTOP reporter. "We will use every resource within the governor's authority to explore what we can do and will do in order to make sure that parent's rights are protected."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, an Arlington parent, shot back at Youngkin on Twitter.
She thanked the district for "standing up for our kids, teachers and administrators and their safety in the midst of a transmissible variant."
Other area school districts have yet to issue guidance on the new rule, which would take effect on January 24.
Before the announcement, Prince William County schools said its mask requirement would remain in place, but the system has not issued updated guidance in the wake of Youngkin's order.
Loudoun County – where education issues have already been a focal point for the new administration, including an executive order to investigate the county's handling of a sexual assault – said Sunday that it will provide updated information on Wednesday, January 19.
Speaking at a school board meeting last week, Loudoun County Superintendent Scott Ziegler said he would bring whatever information the school division receives from Richmond to the school board for consideration.
"We expect January to be bad," Dr. David Goodfriend, the Loudoun health district director, said at the Jan. 11 school board meeting. "The optimistic prediction is that we will get through the omicron peak in January, and our numbers will start dropping significantly."
That has yet to happen. Youngkin's executive order comes as Northern Virginia's case rates skyrocket and as hospitals across the state struggle to keep up with the surge. (In D.C. and its Maryland suburbs, where indoor masking is universally required in schools and other public settings, case rates appear to be slowing or already past their peak.)
Some schools are also struggling with staffing challenges, as teachers and support staff get sick and are unable to come in to work. In Loudoun County, some schools were forced to ask parents to drive their children due to bus driver shortages, according to the superintendent.
"There may come a time, in this current surge, where our staffing levels are not sustainable and we are not able to safely supervise students in the school," Ziegler said.
He said he has sympathy for fatigue with masking, but not at the expense of safety.
"We all hate wearing masks. That's true for me," he said. "Absolutely. I would prefer that our students not be masked at school. However, I'm not going to take my preference and put it in a place where it's going to diminish the safety of our staff and students."
Health officials are broadly united in recommending that masking continue in schools. A joint letter from all five of the Northern Virginia health departments in December 2021 advised schools to continue to adhere to indoor masking, calling the practice "particularly valuable" amid substantial levels of COVID transmission.
Amira Roess, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, said school districts should hold off on ending school mask mandates until their local communities are a few weeks past the peak of the surge.
"Right now, in the midst of the omicron surge, it's hard to say we're at a point where we can live with the virus," she says, a point that she believes will come when cases decrease and the stress on the health care system eases.
Some Northern Virginia parents — many of whom have become politically motivated by their frustrations with school leadership as the pandemic has dragged on, which Youngkin capitalized on in the campaign — are supportive of the end of the school mask mandate.
They feel masks damage their children's development and mental health, and they point to the fact that COVID-19 tends to be quite mild in children as a reason to end pandemic restrictions in schools.
Dozens of people responded to a Facebook post from Alexandria schools about its decision to continue to require masks. Most of the comments supported the school system but a couple people noted the mask mandate is in conflict with Youngkin's order.
"Parents and students now have the right to choose and cannot be forced to wear masks," one person wrote.
"Parents can now overrule!" wrote another.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.