The proposed legislation, known as Senate Bill 739, would amend Virginia’s education law to protect the right of parents to opt their children out of mask requirements on school grounds. The changes would apply to all public elementary and secondary schools, as well as all school-based childhood care and education programs.
“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 states.
The bill passed the Virginia Senate on Feb. 9 by a largely party-line vote of 21 to 17, with three Democrats joining the Republicans in support of the measure. It then passed the House on Feb. 14 by a vote of 52 to 48 without any Democrat support.
Senate Bill 739 now awaits the signature of Youngkin, who is expected to add an emergency clause so that the proposed changes could come into effect as early as March 1.
“I am pleased that there is widespread and bipartisan support in Virginia for a parental opt-out of mask mandates in schools,” the Republican governor said Monday. “Today, the General Assembly took a significant step for parents and children. After passing both chambers of the General Assembly, SB 739 will give parents a choice regarding their child’s health, education, upbringing, and care.”
Democrat state lawmakers, who not too long ago supported the Ralph Northam administration’s K-12 school mask mandate, now argued that it should be left for individual school districts to decide their own mask policy. Meanwhile, the Republicans said that the changes will not 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 Delegate 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.”
The passage of the bill comes after a judge blocked Youngkin’s initial attempt to give parents the final say on masking for their children via an executive action. In an opinion letter issued Feb. 4, Judge Louise DiMatteo of Circuit Court of Arlington County ruled Youngkin’s executive order goes against a state law saying school districts should follow federal health guidelines as much as possible.
“While the General Assembly has granted to the Governor significant and sweeping general powers to address an emergency, 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, even in an emergency, 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.