HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — Officials with Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) said Sunday that the district will continue to require all students, staff and visitors to wear face masks following Gov. Glenn Youngkin's executive order that would end the statewide COVID-19 mask mandate in K-12 schools beginning Jan. 24.
Officials said that masks would be required for students except during mealtime, when outdoors (with physical distancing) or when participating in designated athletic activities.
HCPS said mask use was a critical component of the division’s "layered prevention measures, which reduce the spread of illness in our schools and increase the division’s ability to offer in-person instruction as mandated by state law."
In fact, the school system pointed to SB 1303, which requires all public school divisions to "provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
The CDC continues to recommend using masks in schools and that federal law requires the use of face coverings on school buses, district officials wrote.
While the HCPS School Board and administration said that they "respect that parents make decisions for their families," they noted school leaders "must make decisions for the collective safety of nearly 49,000 students and 10,000 employees and fulfill HCPS’ responsibility to provide in-person instruction."
School Board Chairwoman Marcie Shea wrote HCPS takes the "responsibility to support in-person teaching and learning very seriously."
"Masks, as part of layered mitigation strategies, are currently necessary to accomplish this," Shea wrote."My board colleagues and I will always consider the latest health guidance and data to make decisions in the best interest of the Henrico community."
In an email Sunday evening, officials with Chesterfield County Public Schools said they would will review updated guidelines from the state, when they are available, and then update staff and families no later than Sunday, Jan. 23.
"The Governor has directed the Superintendent of Public Instruction to issue guidance to school divisions," the email reads. "Chesterfield Schools awaits the referenced guidance from the Superintendent of Public Instruction."
.@RPS_Schools will maintain its 100% mask mandate for students, staff, and visitors.— Jason Kamras (@JasonKamras) January 15, 2022
Richmond Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras tweeted Saturday afternoon: ”RPS_Schools will maintain its 100% mask mandate for students, staff, and visitors.”
Political analyst: 'There's some wiggle room' on masks in Virginia schools
Dr. Bob Holsworth, a political analyst for WTVR CBS 6, said the decision to require masks will ultimately fall to local school districts.
"[Youngkin] says he's getting rid of all state mask mandates, but local school districts still have the opportunity and the power to put their own in," Holsworth said.
In fact, Holsworth pointed out that almost immediately after the order was issued, Kamras posted on Twitter his district would keep its mask mandate.
"I think there's some wiggle room here, because the governor basically admits that he's going to allow the localities to do that," Holsworth explained. "I think a lot of people who voted for him did not know that, perhaps. And then secondly, they said they're going to try to take some action to provide what they said, the schools are going to have to provide some opportunities for the parents who don't want their kids to be wearing masks. But what that is is very unclear right now."
Youngkin: 'We said all along that we were going to stand up for parents'
School districts across Virginia were taking stock Sunday of the implications of Youngkin’s executive order that seeks to end mask mandates in schools, with some school systems saying they will continue to require masks.
Shortly after Youngkin took office as Virginia's 74th governor Saturday, he issued nine executive orders, one of which ends the statewide COVID-19 mask mandate in K-12 schools beginning Jan. 24.
In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Youngkin said he will “consider all options” to preserve an opt-out for parents from local school mask mandates amid resistance from some school districts and some Democrats who say state law requires Virginia to follow federal guidance that recommends masks in schools.
Carl Tobias, a law professor of the University of Richmond, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that any challenge to the governor's order will likely end up in the courts.
“We said all along that we were going to stand up for parents,” Youngkin said in the interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
“In Virginia it is clear under law that parents have a fundamental right to make decisions for their children’s upbringing, their education and their care,” Youngkin said. “And so we are providing parents an opt-out. We’re providing them the ability to make the right decision for their child with regard to their child’s well-being."
“We are going to use all the authority that I have to consider all options to protect that right,” he said.
The governor’s order says no parent who opts their child out of a local school mask mandate “shall be required to provide a reason or make any certification concerning their child’s health or education.”
Youngkin has said he is vaccinated and got a booster shot, but that he opposes mandates. Another of his executive orders rescinds the COVID vaccination requirement for state workers.