RICHMOND, Va. -- The Richmond School Board has joined a lawsuit with six other school districts across Virginia to take legal action against Governor Glenn Youngkin over his executive order giving parents the choice of whether or not their children wears a mask in school.
The lawsuit was filed in Arlington Circuit Court on Monday, the same day Youngkin's executive order took effect and one day after Richmond School Board members held a closed-door emergency meeting with legal counsel. School board members were ordered not to speak publicly about the matter.
The seven school boards, which include divisions from Northern Virginia and Hampton, seek to maintain authority over COVID-19 policies including masking. Their complaint is centered around two questions:
- Can an executive order override a school board's supervision of public schools within its community as set out in the Virginia Constitution?
- Can an executive order reverse a state law that says schools shall adhere to COVID mitigation strategies provided by the CDC?
Currently, the CDC recommends universal masking in schools for those over two years old.
"We are disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents' rights," a spokesperson for the governor office responded when asked about the lawsuit. "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."
Richmond Public Schools teacher Charmaine Williams said the lawsuit was a step in the right direction, but it only scraped the surface of meeting the needs of teachers.
“Teachers are tired, they're worn out," Williams said. "They're tired of making demands and saying things and getting ignored. They're exhausted.”
Williams said she and more than 100 other educators across the district called out sick Monday in an attempt to voice concerns about the toll of coronavirus in their classrooms.
They created a list of demands that have been circulating social media calling for specific metrics on when schools should close due to COVID-19, a virtual option for parents, half days on Wednesdays, mental health resources, more KN95 masks, and a two week period of going virtual to control the transmission of the virus.
Williams said the number one thing she'd like to see is more compassion for teachers.
"One of the first things will be a true sense of empathy," she said. "Like really coming to schools, and not just for a photo op, but really come in and see what's happening in the buildings."
She said if nothing changes, some teachers might not make it through the year.
"When you get to the point where you're not listening, you're going to have more resignations, you're going to have more teachers not showing up," Williams said. "How long can someone sustain not being listened to and not being heard?"
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools said there were no disruptions caused by the sickout.
"RPS did not experience an uptick in staff absences today as a result of 'sick out' rumors circulating on social media and our staff absences continued to decrease since the spike in COVID infections earlier this month," a statement from the school system read. "RPS continues to prioritize the health and safety of its staff, remaining a leader in advanced COVID mitigation. All staff and students have access to free KN95 masks, at-home rapid tests if identified as having a COVID exposure, and advanced air filtration systems in all classrooms."
Meanwhile, other parents are frustrated with the ongoing mask mandate debate and believe parents should have the power at this point during the pandemic.
"I find it really sad in this country and in this Commonwealth of Virginia that we are actually having a discussion about parental choice and medical freedom when it comes to wearing a piece of cloth," Stephen Roszel said.
Roszel, a Powhatan County parent and former Chesterfield teacher, lost his job after refusing to wear a mask in school under former Governor Ralph Northam's executive order which required masks to be worn.
"I do not like the idea of executive orders," he said. "I refused to follow the original mask mandate out of principle."
Roszel said he wishes the legislature would tackle the issue of masks in schools instead of an executive order but still appreciates Youngkin's sentiment.
“We're at a position now where those that supported following the executive orders of the previous administration now say that executive orders are bad and we can't follow them because it's a different administration," Roszel said.
As the Centers for Disease Control changed its guidance on which masks are most effective and the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education released new COVID-19 guidance for schools, Roszel said some parents have lost faith in government agencies.
“The CDC guidance has been changing for the past 20 months," he said. “It’s an alphabet soup of chaos.”
However, Roszel said there is room for people to put their differences aside.
"Do not judge people for wearing masks. Do not judge people for not wearing masks," he said. "These are our neighbors. We need to try to come together on this."
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