Seven Virginia school boards are challenging the new GOP governor’s executive order banning mask mandates while schools in a major Catholic diocese have been directed to follow it, setting up parents, schools and public officials yet again along a key pandemic-rights fault line.
The school boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, Richmond City, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County filed a lawsuit with the Circuit Court for the County of Arlington on Monday, challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order, which also took effect Monday.
“Today’s action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students,” the school boards said in a joint statement. “This lawsuit is not brought out of choice, but out of necessity.”
Youngkin, who was inaugurated January 15, campaigned heavily on the rights of schoolchildren’s parents. He signed an executive order on his first day in office allowing parents and guardians to “elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.” In August, Youngkin’s predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam, had issued a public health emergency order mandating masks in schools.
“We are disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parent’s rights,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement on Monday.
“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,” Porter said.
The school boards allege Youngkin’s order also contradicts a state law which says schools must follow US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid guidelines “to the maximum extent practicable” until August 1, 2022.
The CDC recommends all students, staff and school visitors wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status.
The school boards said the legal action, which represents more than 350,000 students across the commonwealth, “defends the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff.”
“Without today’s action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position – faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law,” the statement said.
Last week, a group of parents of public school students in Chesapeake filed a lawsuit, obtained by CNN affiliate WTKR, asking the state’s supreme court to block the executive order, pointing to current CDC guidance as well as the state law on in-person schooling policies.
The lawsuit also names as defendants the acting state health commissioner, the acting superintendent for Virginia’s public schools and local school officials in Chesapeake.
Catholic Diocese enforces governor’s order
The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, which stretches across 21 Virginia counties with some 17,000 enrolled students, instructed schools to follow the executive order last week.
“The governor’s executive order is clear on the right of parents not to have their child be subject to a mask mandate,” the diocese’s superintendent Joseph E. Vorbach III wrote in a letter to pastors and school officials on Thursday.
The diocese directed schools to follow local and state health directives throughout the pandemic, and when those are in conflict, “the state requirement has primacy,” he said.
“Therefore, Diocesan direction to our schools is to continue following local public health guidance, without however violating the rights of parents as described in Executive Order 2.”
The diocese will continue to follow CDC guidelines for isolation and quarantining, Vorbach added.
The Diocese of Arlington includes 37 parish and regional schools, four high schools, and three standalone preschools.
CNN’s Tierney Sneed contributed to this report.