Newly inaugurated Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been in office for mere days, but the Republican is already rolling back the priorities of his Democratic predecessors and running into opposition from counties he lost months earlier, specifically on the hot-button issue of mask requirements in schools.
The tension over school mask requirements echoes the way pandemic-related measures have become political touchpoints over the past two years, with Youngkin campaigning last fall in no small part on parents’ frustrations with remote learning and seizing on what they perceived as lack of control over their kids’ schooling.
But Youngkin’s executive action about mask wearing in schools, which he signed on his first day in office on Saturday, comes in the middle of the latest spike in coronavirus cases – in part due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant – and during a public health crisis where the choices of individuals impact entire communities. His order states “parents should have the ability to decide whether their child should wear masks for the duration of the school day,” thereby attempting to stop any mask mandates in public schools.
Youngkin’s executive actions, which include nine orders and two directives so far, offer the clearest sign that the Republican governor will represent a dramatic departure for a state that has been blue for years, including eight years of Democrats in the governor’s mansion and two years of total Democratic control in the state. They’ve set off a firestorm of controversy and are poised to become Youngkin’s first large test since taking office.
Several school districts in more blue areas of the commonwealth immediately responded to Youngkin by saying they will defy his new order on masks. Youngkin’s predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, had announced in August that masks would be required in schools as part of a public health emergency order. School officials in Northern Virginia, including in Arlington County and Fairfax County (the commonwealth’s largest district), as well as Henrico County in the Richmond region, say they will continue to enforce mask requirements for kids after Youngkin’s executive order takes effect on January 24.
“FCPS continues to require universal mask wearing in alignment with (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance. Our layered prevention strategies have proven effective in keeping transmission rates low in our schools,” said Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott S. Brabrand in a letter to the school community.
“Universal mask use has proven effective in keeping COVID-19 transmission rates low in our schools and ensuring schools remain safe and open,” a statement from Arlington Public Schools said about its decision.
The CDC recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the area’s transmission rates,” adding that “the benefits of mask-wearing are well-established.”
Youngkin, however, rejects that notion in his order.
“Many children wear masks incorrectly, providing little or no health benefit. The masks worn by children are often ineffective because they are made from cloth material, and they are often not clean, resulting in the collection of impurities, including bacteria and parasites,” he writes.
The governor also cited the availability of vaccines for 5-12-year-olds, though he vehemently argues vaccines should not be mandated either – something that split him and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent, in 2021.
A notice from Henrico County public schools on their plan to continue mask requirements inside school facilities and on school buses notes a Virginia law passed last year that requires all public school divisions to offer in-person instruction adhering to “currently applicable mitigation strategies” from the CDC to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Asked on Sunday about Arlington County’s decision to buck his order, the governor told WTOP, “I hope they will listen to parents because we will use every resource within the governor’s authority to explore what we can do and will do in order to make sure parents’ rights are protected.”
Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for the governor, reiterated his pledge, telling CNN on Monday that Youngkin “will consider all options available and all tools at his disposal to ensure parents can make decisions about their children’s upbringing, education, and care.”
In his State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Monday, Youngkin described reversing course on mask mandates as “a matter of individual liberty.”
‘A mask mandate should not be a political ping pong’
Like many Republicans across the country, Youngkin routinely pledged to give parents more agency in pandemic-related decision making during his campaign. And his path to victory offered the GOP a possible road map for which issues to talk about in 2022, like education and parental rights, and which issues to approach carefully, like the 2020 election and false claims by former President Donald Trump.
Youngkin’s focus on parental rights blossomed from a misstep by McAuliffe. During a debate over what books should be taught in schools, the Democrat flippantly said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” a line that Youngkin quickly spun into an ad and used as a rallying cry for the rest of the race.
The focus quickly grew beyond books in schools, and included questions about coronavirus, questions about how race is addressed in the classroom and issues around transgender students. All of it was aimed at cutting into McAuliffe’s support with swing voters in key areas like vote-rich Northern Virginia and around Richmond.
It is now officials in many of those same areas, however, who are bucking Youngkin’s order, something that Monica Hutchinson, a parent to a 14-and a 15-year-old in Henrico County, celebrates.
“As adults we should be leading by example. A mask mandate should not be a political ping pong,” Hutchinson said, adding that mask mandates for young people are vital to maintaining in-person learning.
Youngkin is not the first Republican governor to face pushback on schools and masks. The legal back-and-forth in Florida over Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order “protecting parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks” could be an indication of what lies ahead for Youngkin.
DeSantis secured a political victory last November when the GOP-controlled state legislature agreed on a ban on school mask mandates, which DeSantis signed into law. While Youngkin has a Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, the state Senate is still narrowly controlled by Democrats.
Even if the current Omicron surge subsides, the conversation about how much control parents should have in the daily decision making of schools is likely to remain a political issue in the coming years.
US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said after Youngkin’s victory that the issue will play a prominent role in the 2022 midterms as Republicans will make it part of the party’s case to retake the majority from Democrats.
This story has been updated with additional context.