Public schools in Virginia’s liberal enclaves are vowing to defy Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R.) executive order banning district-wide mask mandates.
Youngkin signed the order, which leaves masking decisions to parents, shortly after his inauguration on Saturday. But school officials in Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties announced that they will still require masks for students and faculty, in open defiance of the governor’s order.
Education issues mobilized Virginians to elect their first Republican governor in nearly a decade. Youngkin campaigned on promises to restore parents’ rights in education and ban progressive racial ideology from schools. He delivered on his first day in office with a series of education-related executive orders banning critical race theory in the classroom and "empower[ing] Virginia parents" to make decisions about masks.
In a statement released just hours after Youngkin’s inauguration, Arlington Public Schools announced that they will not change their masking guidance when the executive order takes effect on Jan. 24. School officials cited state law that requires school districts to follow COVID-19 mitigation guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and federal law mandating masks on public transportation.
"Arlington Public Schools implemented our mask requirement this school year prior to Governor Northam’s K-12 mask mandate," the district said. "And we will continue to make decisions that prioritize the health, safety and wellbeing of our students and staff, following the guidance of local and national health professionals."
Youngkin said he is ready to use "every resource" at his disposal "to make sure that parents’ rights are protected."
"The fact that that tweet came out from Arlington County within minutes of my executive order, what that tells me is they haven't listened to parents yet," Youngkin said on Sunday. "It’s time to listen to parents."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who described herself as an Arlington County parent, thanked the district for "standing up" for students and teachers and maintaining the mask mandate. Last year, the White House walked back its initial plan to return students to the classroom within 100 days of President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Arlington Public Schools was not alone in promising to defy Youngkin’s order. Richmond Public Schools superintendent Jason Kamras said on Saturday that the district "will maintain its 100% mask mandate for students, staff, and visitors." Officials in Prince William County, Fairfax County, Henrico County, and Alexandria schools announced similar guidances this weekend. Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Scott Ziegler said last week he will consider having the school board vote on a district-wide mask mandate.
Youngkin’s executive order could soon face legal challenges. A Virginia law passed last year requires school districts to comply with "any currently applicable mitigation strategies" from the CDC to combat COVID. The CDC’s latest guidance "recommends" masking and social distancing inside K-12 schools.
The new governor affirmed his stance on parents’ rights in an interview with Fox News on Sunday
"In Virginia, it is clear under law that parents have a fundamental right to make decisions for their children’s upbringing, their education and their care. And so we are providing parents an opt-out," Youngkin said. "We’re providing them the ability to make the right decision for their child with regard to their child’s well-being. … We are going to use all the authority that I have to consider all options to protect that right."
Youngkin edged out his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, by a 2-point margin in November. Virginia swung for President Joe Biden by 10 points in 2020. While Youngkin centered his campaign on reopening schools and restoring parental rights in the classroom, McAuliffe sided with teachers' unions that pressured the CDC and school districts to keep schools closed for more than a year during the pandemic.