RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was facing a new legal challenge over his executive action that aimed to let parents opt out of school mask mandates as his order took effect Monday. Youngkin issued the order as one of his first acts after being sworn in as governor on Jan. 15, and confusion has swirled over the implications since then. Some districts have interpreted the order as being at odds with a state law that deals with COVID-19 mitigation in schools and have opted to keep pre-existing mask mandates in place for students.
Some observers took to social media over the weekend to urge parents to follow the governor's order, regardless of their school district's position. On Monday, as students reported to classrooms, there were no immediate reports of major issues requiring intervention by law enforcement.
With the order facing a legal challenge filed last week filed by a group of parents and another filed Monday morning by seven school boards, Youngkin urged patience and asked parents to listen to their children's school principals for the time being.
“Listen to a principal today. And I know that there are some school systems that are doing things that are inconsistent with respecting the rights of parents. ... Let’s respect it right now and let this legal process play out," he said in an interview with Richmond radio station WRVA Monday morning.
He seemed to acknowledge the possibility of conflict, saying: “This is not a moment for us to forget that we’re all in the same boat and love one another.”
Monday's legal challenge was brought by seven schools boards in the state that filed a lawsuit in Arlington County Circuit Court seeking to block the executive order.
In a message to parents, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said he hoped the lawsuit will allow for a swift resolution of the conflict between the governor and local boards that believe a mask mandate is a necessary public health measure.
“It is imperative that decisions about education and school safety are made locally in order to champion the best interests of our students and community,” Brabrand said.
In addition to Fairfax, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, the school boards in Alexandria, Richmond, Hampton, Falls Church, Arlington County, and Prince William County, joined the suit. Collectively, the jurisdictions represent more than 350,000 students.
The lawsuit argues the state constitution gives local school boards the authority to run their districts. It also cites a state law that requires school systems to follow federal health guidelines, which include recommendations for universal masking.
“At issue is whether locally-elected school boards will maintain the exclusive authority and responsibility conferred upon them by Article VIII, Section 7 of the Constitution of Virginia to supervise the public schools in their respective school divisions or whether the Governor can unilaterally infringe upon that authority through an executive order,” the lawsuit states.
Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said the administration was disappointed that the school boards were acting counter to parents' rights.
“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,” she said in a statement.
Supporters of the executive order say the state law is not in conflict with Youngkin’s executive order because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends mask-wearing and does not mandate it.
Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Petarsky said the existing mask mandate has allowed the school system to maintain in-person learning throughout the school year.
“We have held trend transmission levels low,” she said. “We have not had to shut a single school because of COVID. We’ve kept our kids in the classroom, and we’re going to do everything in our power to ensure that we continue that.”
In Loudoun County, also in northern Virginia, no students were sent home Monday morning for defying the mask order, Wayde Byard, a school district spokesperson said.
Those who refused to wear masks were routed to school auditoriums where they could do virtual work through the school’s online platform, he said. Lunch periods were adjusted to ensure maskless students would receive lunch, he said.
At Woodgrove High School, for example, about 30 students out of more than 1,400 refused to wear masks. Four or five parents opted to pull their children. The rest stayed at the school, isolated from masked peers, he said.
He said there were angry parents at a few schools, but principals defused the situation.
“It was pretty much a non-event,” Byard said.
Monday’s lawsuit comes after a group of parents in Chesapeake field a petition last week at the Virginia Supreme Court challenging the executive order.
The Supreme Court justices took no action on the lawsuit last week and it was not immediately clear if they would do so Monday.
Democrats commended the school boards who challenged Youngkin on Monday and accused him of using children as political pawns.
“Youngkin is quickly on his way to becoming the most divisive and authoritarian governor in our commonwealth’s long history,” state Sen. Mamie Locke said at a news conference.