Youngkin signs bill ending school mask requirements by March 1
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bill into law Wednesday that blocks public school districts from requiring masks, instead leaving the decision up to parents. The bipartisan legislation, which goes into effect March 1, is a major development in an intensely politicized month-long fight over who gets to make decisions about students wearing masks: school districts or parents.
"This is a defining moment and decisive victory for parents and kids across the Commonwealth," Youngkin said in a statement.
Additional language in the bill reinforces the Governor's authority to use state of emergency powers to temporarily suspend the new law in the event of a future public health emergency.
The new law is counter to the approach that most Northern Virginia school districts have taken this school year. Most schools in the region chose to not comply with Youngkin's January executive order making masks optional. A group of school boards, including five in Northern Virginia, sued the Youngkin administration and received a temporary restraining order on the enforcement of the executive order.
The legislation signed today was sponsored by Henrico Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, and it requires schools to provide 5 days of in-person instruction. Sen. Chap Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat, attached an amendment to the measure that makes decisions about masks subject to parent choice, not school policy, last week. Petersen told The Washington Post he added the amendment in part to resolve disputes over the legality of Youngkin's executive order, which has been challenged multiple times in court over its legality under state law and the Virginia constitution.
Local schools' plans
Local school systems will be compelled to end their existing mask requirements on or before the date the law takes effect next month.
In Loudoun County, masks will be optional in public schools starting Thursday, Feb. 17, following a judge's ruling late Wednesday night that bars the school system from enforcing a mandate. (Loudoun County schools had originally planned to make masks optional on February 22.) The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Loudoun County parents (joined by Youngkin and his administration) against the school system's mask mandate. Any students who were disciplined for violating the school system's mask policy will have their records cleared, per the court ruling.
"The decision of whether to wear a mask or not is deeply personal for many families, we ask that you respect the decision of others," wrote Superintendent Scott Ziegler in a statement to families on Wednesday. "No one should be made to feel uncomfortable about their choice."
Ziegler reminded families that masks are still required by federal law on buses and in Head Start preschool programs. Staff who are unvaccinated are also required by the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Administration to mask up while transmission is high.
Some school districts, like Loudoun County, said they would keep other pandemic mitigation strategies in place, including classroom ventilation, testing, and encouraging handwashing.
Other area school divisions offered few details about how they would plan to move forward with mask policies in the interim.
Several school officials pointed to the improving pandemic situation in statements responding to the new law.
"I know there are questions about next steps with our mask policy," Arlington Public Schools superintendent Francisco Duran tweeted. "Like other local school divisions, APS has been reviewing the latest health guidance and planning for when we can safely ease our mask requirements."
Duran promised an update at the Arlington school board meeting on Thursday.
Fairfax County schools, the region's largest school system, had previously announced plans to make masks optional when transmission in the Fairfax community returned to moderate levels as defined by the CDC. On Wednesday, the district also said it was figuring out next steps.
"We are reviewing what this means for FCPS, as local health metrics continue to improve," a spokesperson said in an email.
Babur Lateef, the chair of the Prince William County Schools, called March 1 "tremendous Tuesday," and hailed the chance to see student smiles after "2 brutal years." Though Prince William County schools is one of the districts included in the legal challenge to the original executive order, Lateef says he's long been an advocate for so-called masking "off-ramps," and he expects the school division to comply with the new law.
"Students who wish to opt out will be allowed to," he told DCist/WAMU. He also said he expected many parents to choose to keep their children in masks, or to begin using masks again if the pandemic situation worsens and the school district recommends masks again.
"I do trust our families and parents," he said.
Many families in Northern Virginia may choose to continue sending their children to schools masked. Recent national surveys have found majorities support for masks in schools during periods of high COVID-19 transmission (Northern Virginia is currently still in a "high" transmission category, according to the CDC). In Fairfax County, a school spokesperson said only 24 students out of the system's 180,000 have come to school without masks since the Youngkin executive order (Fairfax has maintained its mask requirement throughout that time, despite the order).
The end of the omicron peak
The news comes as the public health situation locally is rebounding from the record-shattering omicron surge, which caused wide disruptions in schools and other community services. While cases have dropped significantly since the peak of the omicron surge last month, they still remain at levels not previously seen since last year's major winter peak. Hospitalizations are also down.
In local schools, which struggled with staff absences and a persistent substitute teacher shortage at the height of the omicron peak, the situation has also improved. A spokesperson for Fairfax schools said the district is "currently less than 1% shy of being fully staffed for full-time teachers," and problems with finding substitutes have abated, too.
Northern Virginia localities are making some progress in vaccinating school-age children, though the rates for younger kids generally lag behind high rates of adult vaccination locally. While 82% of 12-15 year olds are vaccinated, just 47% of children ages 5-11 have gotten their shots.
A victory lap for the local 'reopen schools' movement
The success in passing legislation affirming his executive order is a significant victory for Youngkin, who campaigned as an advocate for parents' rights on masking, and has also established a position against teaching so-called 'inherently divisive concepts' in schools.
Parents involved in the local movement to reopen schools — many of whom say they share Youngkin's broader vision for education — were delighted by the new mask-optional law.
"Our parents believe that each family is better situated to assess the risk tolerance and socio-emotional needs of their children than school system bureaucrats who cannot possibly be expected to understand the individual needs of children in this vast school system," reads a statement from the Fairfax County Parents Association, a school reopening group that has advocated for in-person schooling and an end to mask mandates.
The association blamed local school leadership for inaction on masking and for failing to reopen schools earlier, and accused officials for ignoring the concerns of some parents.
"While other levels of our Fairfax County bureaucracy now complain about their fiefdoms being challenged by actions taken at the General Assembly, the reality is that families and students spent two years begging the levels of local government for leadership on these issues," the statement said.
Parents and advocates for making masks optional — who have been joined by some prominent health leaders like Dr. Leana Wen, a George Washington University professor and the former Baltimore City health commissioner — point to the availability of vaccines for children 5 and older, as well as the availability of high-quality medical-grade masks like N95s for those concerned about being around others who are unmasked.
Others have suggested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation to mask everyone over the age of two is overly aggressive. Some experts have found holes in a study the CDC referenced in writing its school reopening guidance. Local parents have also suggested that masking inhibits child development and causes mental health stress.
For Lateef, the Prince William County school board chair, the local COVID metrics are hopeful. He's eager to set aside the masking debate and get on with the challenge of helping students recover academically from a year of virtual schooling.
"It's so hard to catch these students up," he says.
'We're legislating as if COVID were over'
The news of the new law was disturbing for Lauryn Mills, the senior class president at Annandale High School in Fairfax County. She hasn't had an exposure or a COVID-19 infection all school year, and she's worried about bringing the virus home to her mother, a cancer survivor who is at higher risk for serious illness. And while she's been relishing being back in the classroom for her challenging International Baccalaureate class schedule this year, she might consider returning to virtual classes if her fellow students stop wearing masks.
"Not wearing a mask could affect people at large," she says. "We've seen in a global pandemic, it only takes one person to spread the disease."
There are students, parents, teachers and some public health experts who are concerned that the new law amounts to "tying the hands of school boards and tying the hands of county public health departments from managing the likely future waves of this pandemic, not to mention future infectious disease outbreaks," as Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor in health policy and management at the University of Maryland, puts it.
"Whether it's like an abundance of optimism or bad advice, I think we're legislating as if COVID were over," he says. "That's not a wise move."
Sehgal also notes that there are many unknowns about the long term consequences of COVID-19 infections, in adults and in kids — so what could appear to be a "mild" case could carry serious risks.
"There's one camp saying, 'Well, we should minimize infection. That's because we don't know what those consequences are,'" he says. "And there's another camp saying, 'We don't know what those consequences are. So why worry about them?'"
Teachers, some of whom have risk factors themselves, have also expressed concerns about unmasking children in their classrooms since the Youngkin executive order came out last month. The Virginia Education Association called the legislation "a major overreach of power by the state."
Attorneys bringing a federal disability rights challenge against the original executive order are concerned the new law could prevent at-risk children from attending school and receiving the same education as their peers.
The ADA suit challenging the order will continue, and lawyers "are considering all of our options for challenging the new law, which presents the same problem - namely, that it prohibits schools from taking reasonable steps like universal masking to allow students with disabilities to safely attend schools," said Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, in an emailed statement. "That may mean amending our complaint to add a challenge the state law."
While children are generally at lower risk of serious illness from COVID-19, Sehgal points out that parents or other family members may be susceptible to infections brought home from schools, especially if families live in close quarters, making isolating a child with an infection impossible.
"Rescinding requirements most negatively impacts those families in those communities who have already been disproportionately negatively impacted," he says.
That resonates with Mills, at Annandale High School.
"It's definitely difficult, especially for Annandale, in particular because of the community that we live in, which just has a high minority population [and] a high number of students who live with other generations in their family," she says.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.
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