Seven school boards sue Glenn Youngkin over 'masks optional' policy for schools

"We will continue to protect parents' fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child's upbringing, education and care," said a Youngkin spokeswoman.

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY

Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia issued a "mask-optional" policy for Virginia schools, and in response, seven school boards are suing the governor, claiming that they have the right to require their students to mask. These school boards claim that Youngkin's order is a violation of Virginia's Constitution.

The suit, filed Monday morning in Arlington district court and helmed by Fairfax County Public schools, asks the court to bar enforcement of the policy, which would make it possible for students to mask if they want to, and not mask if they don't. Youngkin believes the decision of whether or not kids should wear face masks at school should be up to parents.

According to the Washington Post, the school boards complain that Youngkin's order violates "Article 8, Section 7 of Virginia’s constitution, which asserts that 'the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.'" The suit alleges that school boards, and not parents should determine who gets to show their face.

The seven school districts are Alexandria City Public Schools, Arlington Public Schools, Falls Church City Public Schools, Hampton City Schools, Prince William County Public Schools and Richmond Public Schools. In a statement, they said that "school divisions need to continue to preserve their authority to protect and serve all students, including our most vulnerable who need these mitigation measures perhaps more than anyone," and say that masking is key to keeping schools open for in-person learning.

Youngkin responded to the suit, saying that his "opt-out" plan was best for parents, and that it puts parents in control of their children's learning environment. "I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents. Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1. In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process." he said.

Additionally, the suit cites a state law passed under the previous governor's administration required that schools must adhere to federal health guidelines to the "maximum extent practicable." The CDC has come out in favor of forcing children to wear face masks, even for those as young as 2 to spend their days with their mouth and nose covered.

Former Governor Ralph Northam had issued an order over the summer that required students to wear face masks.

The school boards' statement said that if the court doesn't bar the enforcement of the mask-optional policy, "school boards are placed in a legally untenable position... Today’s action is not politically motivated … the lawsuit is not brought out of choice but out of necessity."

"The issue at heart is about local control," Fairfax school board Chair Stella Pekarski said. "Can we make policies for our school system or does the governor get to come and do that for us?" Pekarski went on to say that, "The governor is not a part of our local government. We do not work for the governor. He does not tell us what to do."

Perkaski didn't have a problem with Northam's order requiring masking because in her view that "was in accordance with what we needed to do to keep our students safe." But also in her view Youngkin's order making masking mandatory and giving parents the option is a government overreach into local affairs.

But for Youngkin, the top priority is giving parents the option. "We will continue to protect parents' fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child's upbringing, education and care," said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter.

Only 58 of Virginia's 130 or so school districts have opposed the order, and Fairfax County's superintendent said that if students refuse to mask at school, they will be removed from class.

Youngkin's updated plan is based on "key principles of parental rights, keeping kids in the classroom five days a week, and keeping kids safe and healthy."

The guidelines are:

  • Emphasizes alternative mitigation measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 including vaccination, distancing, and outbreak awareness.
  • Provides a clear decision tree for parents to review when trying to determine how to keep and return children to the classroom.
  • Strongly encourages test-to-stay and other strategies to keep and return kids to the classroom as quickly as possible
  • Gives schools practicable flexibility on contact tracing, distancing, and other strategies.

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