Virginia Governor Signs Law to Ensure Parents’ Right to Opt Out of School Mask Mandates

Virginia Governor Signs Law to Ensure Parents’ Right to Opt Out of School Mask Mandates
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin gives the inaugural address after being sworn in as the 74th Governor of Virginia in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 15, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

Under a law signed on Feb. 16 by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, public school districts in the commonwealth will have to allow parents to decide whether their child wears a mask at school.

“Children have not only suffered learning loss, they have suffered relationship loss,” Youngkin said at a ceremony outside Virginia’s Capitol building. “Now is our chance to give all parents the rights to make decisions we know they have, to put it into law. Today, we are establishing and restoring power back to parents. But we are also reestablishing our expectations that we will get back to normal, and this is the path.”

Previously known as Senate Bill 739, the new education law states that parents have the right to opt their children out of mask requirements on school grounds.

“A parent making such an election shall not be required to provide a reason or any certification of the child’s health or education status. No student shall suffer any adverse disciplinary or academic consequences as a result of this parental election,” the bill’s language reads.

The change, which must be implemented by March 1, applies to all public elementary and secondary schools, as well as all school-based child care and education programs.

The state Senate approved the measure on Feb. 9 on a 21–17 vote, with three Democrats joining the Republicans in support of the measure. The House voted 52–48 on Feb. 14, without any support from the Democrats.

The Democrats, who not long ago supported the Ralph Northam administration’s K–12 school mask mandate, argued that it should be left to individual school districts to decide their own mask policy. Meanwhile, Republicans countered that the change won’t prevent parents who wish to keep their children masked at school from doing so.

“You still have an option to send your child to school with a mask. No one is stopping that,” said Republican Del. Emily Brewer. “But I will tell you who will remember this: In a decade, these children will wonder who stood up for their freedom. They will wonder who stood up for parents and who stood up for an option.”

Just hours after his inauguration on Jan. 15, Youngkin issued an executive order to give parents the ability to choose if their child wears a mask at school. His effort was blocked by Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo, who ruled that the order goes against a Northam-era law saying school districts should follow federal health guidelines as much as possible.

“When confronted with a specific statute addressing the manner in which in-person learning can resume and directs local school boards to follow the guidance of the CDC, ’to the maximum extent practicable,' it does not follow that the Governor ... can direct the School Boards to ignore the General Assembly’s deference to CDC guidance and to abandon their considered determination about what is practicable regarding those mitigation strategies,” DiMatteo wrote in her Feb. 4 opinion.

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