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RICHMOND (AP) – Virginia’s Republican governor is facing opposition from Democratic lawmakers as well as school districts and a group of parents who filed suit against him on Tuesday for an executive order that seeks to create an opt out for classroom mask mandates.
Glenn Youngkin’s first move after being elected Governor of Virginia’s 774th was to issue a Saturday-only order which was scheduled to take effect on Monday. The move both fulfilled an election pledge and brought Youngkin, a political newcomer working with a divided legislature, into a contentious issue that’s caused legal challenges in other states.
Youngkin’s decision stated that parents of secondary and elementary school children, or those who participate in school-based early care or education programs “may choose for their children not to be subject to any regulations.”
In part because of the state law that was passed in the year 2000 that dealt with classrooms and pandemic-related policies, school districts in many of the state’s most populous municipalities have since informed parents they planned to maintain existing mask rules in place, at least temporarily.
The law of 2021 requires that every Virginia school board offer in-person instruction that is compatible “to the greatest extent practicable” to COVID-19 mitigation guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends universal masking for all people aged 2 or older regardless of vaccination status.
Many districts – from Charlottesville to Richmond to Arlington — cited the law in announcing that they did not have plans to immediately alter the rules for masking. Others stated that they were reviewing the guidance and waiting for clarification from the state. At least two of them, King George County or Louisa County, have announced plans to follow the.
A group of parents of children attending Chesapeake Public Schools filed suit against the governor and his staff in the Supreme Court of Virginia on Tuesday, claiming that the executive decree violated the law of the state.
“Petitioners have no adequate remedy at law , and they have no time to spare. They and their children are likely to suffer irreparable harm and damage if this Court refuses to give immediate relief,” they wrote.
When asked for a comment on the legal challenge, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said: “We will continue to defend parents’ fundamental right to make decisions in regard to their child’s care education, care and treatment.”
She didn’t reply to a question about the governor’s intentions to implement the order.
Youngkin who is in favor of vaccination efforts, but is against mandates for vaccination and masks, recently announced that he will “use all the resources under the governor’s jurisdiction” to ensure parents have the right to decide whether their children wear masks. In an executive order that he signed, Youngkin also ended the vaccination or test mandate for state employees.
Democrats accuse him of overstepping his authority under the mask order, not respecting the law of the state and trying to bully students from the local school district.
“I’m sad that, you know from the gate, we’re focused on culture wars instead of the goal of teaching children,” said Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a public school teacher.
University of Richmond law professor Jack Preis said a parent or school district could present an argument to prove that the order violates the state law.
“State law prevails over an executive order, without doubt,” said Preis, who has taught courses on legislative and administrative law.
Preis said that if he wishes to give parents the option to remove themselves from the rules regarding masks He must amend the statute. This starts with the legislature.
However, some Republicans have claimed that the state law doesn’t mandate masks. Siobhan Dunnavant (state senator), was among those who worked on the bill. The law also requires in-person instruction. Dunnavant told reporters this week that the law doesn’t require masks since the CDC does NOT recommend them.
Youngkin’s order says that the obfuscations “inhibit children’s ability to communicate, impede the development of language and hinder the development of social, emotional and other skills.”
The Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed on the issue and continues to advise children to wear a properly fitted face mask at school regardless of vaccination status.
While many states allow schools to decide their own policies regarding masks, several Republican-led states have made it illegal for schools to demand masks. These restrictions are in place in Florida, Texas, and Utah. Others have been rejected by courts or are currently undergoing legal challenges.
The debate over masks has gotten more heated as schools struggle to limit the omicron variation, which has been blamed as the reason for forcing hundreds of schools across the U.S. to return to remote learning and has also led to some districts reinstate policies on masks.
Two parents in Bedford County voted last week for Youngkin’s executive order to repeal the mask mandate. They had differing opinions on the necessity of wearing masks in schools.
Chelsea Jones, 30, has a 6-year-old son in elementary school. She expressed concern that wearing masks can affect speech development because children rely on facial expressions in order to communicate. Noting that adults do not wear masks in other public places, she said that “the children are in danger of getting a punishment for being kids.”
Brian Mulligan, 53 was concerned about the risks for his son, who is 14 years old, with cystic fibrosis. He said he voted for Youngkin, but felt betrayed by the executive order.
“If masking is able to save one child, isn’t it worth it?” Mulligan stated.
Associated Press writers Parker Purifoy in Washington; Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland; Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia; and Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.
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