Students arrive at Annandale High School in masks.
If other students in her school stop wearing masks, Michelle Cades fears her daughter, a freshman with special needs in Fairfax County schools, will no longer be able to go to class. Her daughter's anxiety about the pandemic is so extreme she asked school administrators to allow her extra time to navigate the halls between classes, to avoid big groups of other students.
"If suddenly lots of students were not wearing masks at all, either in the halls or in my kids' classes, I honestly don't know how my child would tolerate going to school," Cades says.
How many students will stop wearing masks in Northern Virginia schools is an open question right now. In one of his first actions in office, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order rescinding the school mask mandate in favor of allowing parents to choose to mask or unmask their children, effective Monday, Jan. 24. Some local parents, many of them part of the emerging conservative parent movement that helped elect Youngkin, are thrilled by the news.
But local school officials in Alexandria and Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties say they plan to keep masking requirements in place, noting they are following current recommendations from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Many local parents and teachers agree. They fear ending the mask requirement could cause more students and teachers to get sick and lead to more disruptions in learning, especially during the ongoing omicron surge, which is already causing major shortages in school staff.
The disagreement on mask requirements between the state and local school systems has already ended up in court elsewhere in the state. It's causing heated debate in person and online in the wider community in Northern Virginia, mirroring similar discussions across the country.
"I'm personally tired of masking and I'm tired of the pandemic, but my fatigue shouldn't and doesn't impact public health and what is necessary to keep us going," Cades says.
'Parents can assess the risks'
The swift move to rescind the mask mandate was among Youngkin's pledges on the campaign trail that tapped in to suburban parent frustrations and fears about schooling during the pandemic, racial equity policies in schools, and giving parents more say in schools.
"Parents can assess the risks and benefits facing their child, consult their medical providers, and make the best decision for their children based on the most up to date health information available," the order says, citing a section of the Virginia code that gives parents "a fundamental right" to make decisions about their child's education and growth.
On Saturday, the Youngkin administration announced new guidance for schools from the Virginia Department of Health. The document advises schools to evaluate indicators of COVID transmission and strain on staff capacity, and to adjust pandemic mitigation measures accordingly. Parents, the order says, should make decisions about masks, vaccination, and keeping their children home when sick, while schools should focus on ensuring good ventilation, social distancing in classrooms, student handwashing, and test-to-stay policies if possible.
"The feasibility of certain prevention strategies, including any harmful impacts a strategy may have, should be assessed to help decide what combination of strategies is best," the guidance says. "For example, if a school cannot maintain operations while maintaining distances of 3 feet between students in classrooms, it would be especially important to focus on and layer other prevention strategies such as, testing programs, adequate or increased ventilation, ensuring appropriate hand hygiene opportunities, staying home when sick, supporting parents who choose to send their child to school with a mask, and regular cleaning and disinfecting."
The move to end mandatory masking made some parents feel heard.
"I am impressed that he followed through on his campaign promises, and I'm, you know, I'm excited to see how things play out," says Christy Hudson, a Fairfax parent and a board member with the bipartisan parent advocacy organization Fairfax County Parents Association. "And I do very much like that he is putting some power back into the hands of parents."
Youngkin's order argues that universal masking in schools is outdated as a pandemic strategy, describing masking in schools as "ineffective and impractical" and noting that mask mandates have failed to keep up with "rapidly changing scientific information." And it says the practice may do harm to students' communication skills, social and emotional development, and their mental health.
And the order suggests that there isn't comprehensive data showing that universal masking creates a statistically significant decrease in spread in school settings. (There's scientific agreement that masks decrease coronavirus transmission, but some scientists have criticized one of the main school-based mask studies cited by the CDC.)
For some parents in Northern Virginia, those arguments ring true.
"I really feel like I can breathe easier, no pun intended, knowing that somebody is actually listening to the concerns of parents," says Marci Reeves, the mother of two elementary school children and a pre-schooler in Fairfax County.
Reeves has a PhD in molecular biology, and has come to similar conclusions in her review of school masking research as those noted in the Youngkin order.
"For someone that truly feels masking works, your mask then should work for you, and it shouldn't matter whether my kid is wearing a mask or not," she says.
Reeves and her military family moved to the area during the pandemic. Her kids struggled to make friends — the direct result of her neighbors "treating strangers like disease vectors," she says. Her kids were initially thrilled to go back to school, even wearing masks. But now they complain of shortness of breath and bloody noses. Last weekend, her 9-year-old son was thrilled to hear he might be able to take off his mask.
Reeves plans to send him to school without one on Monday, when the executive order takes effect, despite the fact that Fairfax schools are planning to keep the mask requirement in place. She's already prepared him for what to say if adults tell him he needs to wear a mask.
"I have had to have a conversation with him that says if your teacher says to you, 'You have to put that back on,' then you need to say 'No, thank you,'" she says.
Reeves is not alone in planning to unmask her children on Monday. On social media, some parent groups — many of them originally organized to advocate for a return to in-person schools earlier in the pandemic — are passing around letters and advice for how to assert their choice to send their children to school without masks.
"We expect continued equitable, respectful treatment of our children by all members of [YOUR SCHOOL'S NAME] administration and teachers," says the template for one such letter, shared on Twitter. "We expect their access to free public education to continue in-person and in a non-disparate, nondiscriminatory manner."
Local schools push back
Northern Virginia school officials argue they are required by Virginia law to continue with masking. They believe that the governor's order runs counter to a state law passed last year requiring schools returning to in-person instruction to follow, to the "maximum extent practicable," CDC strategies for reducing COVID transmission.
The Youngkin administration believes "the maximum extent practicable" is subjective, but the schools say that language compels them to follow CDC guidelines, which recommend universal masking in schools.
"I did not think there was standing for us to move forward on the [governor's] order," says Babur Lateef, the chair of the Prince William County school board.
Lateef says the school system has worked hard to bring students back to school safely, and to continue to minimize disruptions even in the face of the record-breaking omicron surge, which is already affecting the district's teachers, bus drivers, and other support staff.
"We're seeing cases go up. We're seeing, you know, absences for faculty and staff," he says. "It has been incredibly challenging."
Lateef worries that a sudden, arbitrary end to the mask mandate might create even further "havoc," causing more students and staff to get sick and possibly extending quarantine times after exposure.
'Where is the care and concern?'
Local parents in support of the mask mandate share those concerns. Some worry that the impact of ending universal masking could fall disproportionately on students with disabilities.
"Virtual learning really negatively impacts our population. On top of that, extensive absences impact our population," says Michelle Cades, the Fairfax County parent, who is also the president of the county's Special Education Parent-Teacher Association.
Others worry about students passing the disease to vulnerable family members or community members, citing the physical and mental health toll that could take. Diane Cooper-Gould, another Fairfax County parent, has a chronic lung condition — and a son with high anxiety about giving her the disease.
"At one point during this pandemic, he did say, 'Mom, I'm not scared of getting COVID. I'm scared of giving it to you.' That's a big burden for a child," she says.
Symone Walker, an Arlington parent, has another group on her mind as the masking debate unfolds: the Black and Latinx communities who have borne the brunt of the pandemic in Northern Virginia.
"COVID disproportionately impacts Black and Latino families in terms of serious illness and in terms of death," she points out. "There is a disproportionate impact of COVID on us, on our community. Where is the care and concern for that?"
Walker says she's had conversations with her daughter, Camille, about continuing to keep her mask on while attending her high school, regardless of what ultimately happens in the tussle between the Youngkin administration and local schools. Camille says she'll comply, as frustrating as masking can sometimes be.
"It can be a little bit difficult and kind of annoying, because you want to show your face, you want to smile, you want to interact in a kind of more normal way," she says. "But I do think it's necessary for everyone's safety."
Challenges for teachers
Many local teachers agree that while they'd prefer to teach without masks once the pandemic recedes, for now they're concerned about their own health and the health of their students.
"We love our students the same way we love our own children, and we're going to advocate for them the best way we know how, and that's to keep them safe," says Arlington social studies teacher Alie Bakaj, who feels masking helps mitigate teenagers' propensity to cluster around each other to socialize.
Some teachers of younger children say they've had to come up with workarounds to help students learn basic literacy and speech skills.
"We have to work on letter sounds and they need to see my mouth—all kids, but especially my second language learners," says Kelly Huggler, an Arlington elementary teacher. "So sometimes I take them outside, where I can take my mask off and they can see me."
But overall, Huggler and other teachers feel their students have adapted well to wearing masks, and that it doesn't significantly affect the learning experience in their classrooms.
"They have the option to take their mask off at recess, and most of them don't. They just forget," she says.
Teachers say they've been under an enormous amount of stress, returning to school during the pandemic and staying in the classroom through the delta and now omicron surges. Many report significant staffing shortages and a need for substitute teachers as a result of the current surge, and others are tired of the constant grind of responding to the pandemic on top of lesson plans and classroom interactions. They feel now is not the time to change course on pandemic measures, and they worry doing so might upset the progress they've made in their classrooms in catching students back up and attending to their emotional needs in the wake of two traumatic years. Some felt unmasking some students and not others would lead to social pressures between students.
Above all, teachers say they want to stay in the classroom and avoid as many illness-related learning disruptions as possible.
"It's just a very different educational approach when you're in person with the children versus being online," says T., an elementary school educator who has twice had to move her classroom to virtual learning as a result of COVID exposures so far. DCist/WAMU is using an initial for T., who was concerned about retaliation at work and online for speaking up about her experience.
"It's a bit scary," T. says. "But we love what we do."
The issue lands in court
A group of parents in Chesapeake Public Schools filed suit in Virginia's Supreme Court against the Youngkin administration earlier in the week, contending the governor doesn't have the legal authority to rescind school mask mandates and asking the court to block the order. The state's new Attorney General Jason Miyares has already filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
It's unclear what the state's Supreme Court will do, but legal experts point to the state's constitution. "The state constitution, when it was rewritten substantially in the early 1970s, sought to insulate education policy from politics, at least to some degree," says Rich Schragger, a law professor at the University of Virginia. "This is coming out of the experience with massive resistance in segregated schools. And so the constitution makers set up a school board as essentially an independent entity."
And there could be more avenues for legal action, Schragger believes, including lawsuits brought against the administration directly by local school systems, or parent lawsuits against local schools for not complying with the order.
It's not clear if a court might intervene to stop the executive order from taking effect before Monday; the Chesapeake plaintiffs are asking for an injunction from the court to do so.
It's also not clear if the Youngkin administration will exercise any other levers to exert pressure on school systems. Youngkin has promised to "use every resource within the governor's authority" to enforce the order, and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears suggested in a televised interview that pulling state funding for schools that aren't complying with the order could be in the cards. (A spokesperson for the administration told The Washington Post that Earle-Sears' remarks had been "willfully mischaracterized," but did not directly comment on the possibility of funding cuts.)
'This turned ugly'
In the meantime, the increasingly polarized debate rages on among parents, teachers, and school officials in Northern Virginia — echoing the political divisions over pandemic measures common across the rest of the country.
"I'm very shocked, especially in Northern Virginia, that there are sides," says Kim Reed, a Fairfax teacher.
Lateef, the Prince William County school board chair, hopes the community can come together to set some benchmarks for how to ultimately roll back masking in the schools.
"I have encouraged in my public statements that we all work together to come up with a roadmap on how best to remove the masks based on best practices around the country," he says, noting that he wishes the CDC would help school districts by providing more information about the experiences of schools that have gone mask-optional or removed masks entirely.
Christy Hudson, the Fairfax County Parents Association board member, says her organization has consistently pushed for data-based "off-ramps" to determine when students can safely remove masks, but to no avail.
"There are lots of statistics out there that need to be assessed to determine whether or not it is safe to remove the masks or not," she says. "But we don't have that information. Our school leadership has not indicated an endpoint at all. And that's what we need to see."
No parent, teacher or school official in this story says they like masks or want students to keep wearing them forever. But beyond that, there are few areas of agreement, and in many cases, the disagreement has gotten ugly. Multiple sources who spoke to DCist/WAMU say they feared retaliation or online attacks, and many refused to go on record. One parent in Page County threatened to bring "every single gun loaded" if the schools insisted her children continue wearing masks.
Reed, who is also a parent, says the vitriol boiled over on a Facebook page for parents at her son's private school.
"It was fighting back and forth on a page that's normally calm and peaceful," she says. "We made it through the election and without anything negative being said, but this turned ugly."
The masking debate has pitted some parents against teachers, many of whom have pushed for continuing masking and other pandemic measures.
"If somebody is truly that afraid, then – it's been two years. It might be time to find a new profession, because if you don't care about kids enough to teach them, then you shouldn't be a teacher," Marci Reeves, the Fairfax mother and molecular biologist, says.
Parent anger at teachers in the pandemic is nothing new to Jamie Guidry, a second grade teacher in Arlington. She's also a single mom of a high-risk child, and says some parents she knows avoid her at community events because of their disagreement over masks in school.
"In one moment, we're superheroes. The first two weeks you have your kids home, and you're like, 'Whoa, this is what teachers do all day,'" Guidry says. "And then it switches to this violent — you know, it's hurtful."
Guidry, who works in a Title I school, worries the increasingly political mask debate is distracting from other school priorities, like catching kids up from virtual school, fixing worsening teacher shortages, and addressing student mental health — issues that people across the political spectrum have cited as urgent.
"I do wish more attention was spent on where we are academically, where we are with the mental health of our students and our faculty," Lateef says. "If we could be spending time with executive orders, maybe improving that effort, that would be great as well."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.