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At least 71 school divisions still requiring masks despite Youngkin's executive order

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin prepares to sign executive orders in the governors conference room at the Capitol, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber/AP
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin prepares to sign executive orders in the governors conference room at the Capitol, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

One of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s first executive orders has yet to affect most of its target, schoolchildren and their parents, as most school districts have continued to require masks in schools.

The executive order, on masking, said school divisions must allow parents the option to send their kids to school without a mask.

But as of Tuesday afternoon, at least 71 of Virginia’s school divisions were not following the order and continuing to require universal masking. These school districts teach almost 73% of the students in Virginia public schools.

These numbers come from a review of division statements and news reports. School administrators in at least 58 of Virginia’s 133 divisions are following the governor’s order by providing a parental opt-out.

These numbers conflict with what Youngkin said on conservative radio program Monday morning, when the executive order went into effect.

“The reality is it's about 25 out of our 130 school systems across Virginia, who aren't recognizing the rights of parents today,” Youngkin told John Fredericks. “By the way, they haven't been recognizing the rights of parents all along. And so I'm not surprised at all to hear these reactions from school boards that have consistently prioritized bureaucrats and politicians over the rights of parents.”

A governor’s office spokesperson said counts of divisions' stances vary based on the criteria used and that Youngkin’s figure was calculated from public sources available at the time. Some divisions made decisions as late as Monday night: Hanover County Public Schools getting behind Youngkin's order, and Rockingham County Public Schools going for SB1303, which was passed by the general assembly last year.

Many of the 71 districts keeping the mandate cited legal advice that SB1303, which was passed by the General Assembly last year, required them to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, until the issue is decided in court. The CDC currently recommends universal masking in school.

“I have consulted with our school board attorney and have been advised that our best option is to continue to follow the expectations of the General Assembly until the courts determine which dictate takes precedence,” wrote Paul Nichols, Superintendent of Mecklenburg County Public Schools, in a letter to parents following the executive order.

Seven of Virginia’s largest school districts are suing Youngkin in an Arlington court. They’re challenging the constitutionality of Youngkin’s executive order, and say it violates SB1303.

"Also at issue is whether a governor can, through executive order, without legislative action by the Virginia General Assembly, reverse a lawfully-adopted statute," the schools wrote in a joint news release. "In this case, Senate Bill 1303, adopted with the goal of returning students to safe in-person instruction five days a week in March 2021 and still legally in effect, provides that local school boards should follow The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health and safety requirements."

“We are disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents' rights,” said Governor Youngkin’s spokesperson Macaulay Porter. “The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents' fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education, and care, as the legal process plays out."

A group of parents in Chesapeake are also suing Youngkin over the mask order. Attorney General Jason Miyares has filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit.

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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