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Gov. Youngkin's mask order on schools gets pushback

Jahd Khalil
Radio IQ
A school in Hopewell notifies visitors they will need a mask to enter the building.

School administrators and politicians are pushing back against Governor Glenn Youngkin's executive order that would allow parents to opt their children out of school mask requirements, saying masking is the best way to keep schools open and the order doesn't override a law on the subject.

Youngkin’s order doesn’t go into effect until January 24th, but many of Virginia’s largest school divisions have announced they aren’t changing their mask requirements.

Fairfax, Arlington, Charlottesville, and Alexandria all plan to keep their mask requirements in place. Roanoke schools reversed course and voted to keep their mask requirements.

“The CDC is very clear on the need for wearing masks, particularly in school settings. So if we are to follow the law which is to follow the CDC guidance to the maximum extent practicable, then maintaining the mandate is exactly what we should do under the law,” said Richmond’s school superintendent, Jason Kamras.

Republican Senator Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico sponsored the bill, SB 1303.

“SB1303 has been used against our children and against its intent this school year to advance an agenda. SB1303 does not mandate the use of masks in school because the CDC does not mandate masks,” she said in a statement.

The CDC does recommend masks for everyone over 2 in a school, regardless of vaccination status.

The Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement strongly recommending that children keep wearing masks in schools, though it does not directly address the executive order.

Doctor Tiffany Kimbrough is a member and said that everyone wants to get back to normal and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is the best way to do that.

“The more that we can stay safe from COVID-19 keeping out of the schools, then we're going to help our kids to be able to get back to normal,” she said. Mental health issues believed to stem from remote learning also present a health challenge for children.

“Unfortunately with Virtual learning kids, especially elementary school kids, are really facing the implications of that,” Kimbrough said. “And we want to be able to make sure they can stay in school and get the education and social benefits of being in person.”

Kimbrough says that half of her patients coming in with symptoms are testing positive for Covid. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that 8.5 million children have caught Covid, and 11% of those cases have been in the past two weeks.

Democrats in the General Assembly pushed back against the order in a press conference Tuesday. They also said SB1303 overrules the governor’s order.

Delegate Schuyler VanValkenberg argued that masks will keep the most kids in school by preventing staff shortages due to COVID.

“If the goal is for kids to be in a school, and the goal is for kids to learn at a high level, they have to be there, teachers have to be there, staff has to be there.”

Democrats also referenced a comment by Lt Governor Winsome Earle-Sears that Governor Youngkin could withhold funding from school divisions that don’t comply with the Governor’s executive order.

Youngkin spokesperson spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement that Democrats “willfully mischaracterized the Lieutenant Governor's comments to the press and played politics in an effort to delegitimize the rights of parents. This is the exact type of divisive partisan politics that Virginians rejected this fall. They still refuse to stand up for parents over their children's upbringing, education and care. The executive order allows parents to opt out of mask mandates so that they can make the best decisions for their children and anyone who wants to wear a mask is free to do so.”

Porter didn’t respond for clarification weather the governor would support withholding funds from school divisions that don’t allow parents to opt out of mask requirements.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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