RICHMOND, Va. -- Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order on masks in schools violates state law, according to House and Senate Democrats at a news conference Tuesday.
Senate Bill 1303, which received bipartisan support and passed in 2021, stated schools must follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID mitigation guidelines to the “maximum extent practicable” when schools are open during the pandemic. Right now, the CDC lists universal indoor masking as a recommendation for schools.
Governor Youngkin's Executive Order 2 says, “parents of any child enrolled in a elementary or secondary school or a school-based early childcare and educational program may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.”
Democrats don't believe the Youngkin administration has the authority to withhold funding from schools that don’t follow the order, as they recently threatened.
Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D - Henrico), a public school teacher, said schools are already having trouble keeping staff and students in the building, and removing masks would make virus spread in schools even more likely.
"We should be doing everything we can," said VanValkenburg. "We should be throwing the kitchen sink at keeping kids in school, which is what that bill sets out to do and why we have those mitigation strategies in place. It's a disappointment, to say the least, to see the governor issue Executive Order 2, which I think puts that at risk."
Republicans are backing the new Republican governor's executive order.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R - Henrico), a doctor, said Senate Bill 1303 does not mandate the use of masks in school because the CDC does not mandate masks.
She added the governor’s order does not ban masks, but simply gives options to parents.
“Today, we know that the risk of hospitalization for children is almost none," Dunnavant wrote in a statement to CBS 6. "In fact, of Virginia’s estimated almost 1.9 million children, .07% have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since March 2020. At the same time, the use of masks in school presents risks of learning loss, social-emotional challenges, and other issues. Parents, constitutionally and logically, are the best people to do an analysis of what’s best for their child."
School leaders in the City of Richmond and Henrico County have announced their schools will continue with masking policies.
A statement from Chesterfield County Schools indicated school leaders in that county were still evaluating and would make a decision before next Monday, January 24, when Gov. Youngkin's order was set to take effect.