STAFFORD, Va. — A small group of Stafford County parents banded together outside Margaret Brent Elementary School Monday morning with their unmasked children to voice support for an executive order lifting mask mandates in school. Principal Brian Fitzgerald said students from six families were ultimately sent home to participate in virtual learning.
Like several other northern Virginia school districts, Stafford County is choosing not to follow Gov. Glenn Youngkin's order, and some parents are displeased.
The Stafford County school board voted 5-2 on Jan. 20 to keep its universal mask mandate in place despite Youngkin’s executive order, which went into effect Monday. Some members of the Stafford board cited state law, Senate Bill 1303, which requires in-person instruction be made available to all Virginia students, as their reason for doing so.
The bill referenced required school boards to offer in-person learning for all students, while following "to the maximum extent practicable" COVID mitigation strategies outlined by the CDC. The current guidelines recommend universal indoor masking for any student ages 2 and above, as well as staff, teachers and visitors regardless of vaccination status.
Board members Alyssa Halstead and Maureen Siegmund voted against keeping the mask mandates, and Halstead was at Margaret Brent Monday to stand united with parents.
"It’s not even really about masks anymore," Halstead said. "This is about parent choice. Parents have been doing this for two years and they’re tired and they have a right to be. Today was about letting them [parents who don’t support masks] be heard, and letting them finally get a sense that they’re fighting for their children."
One parent was seen carrying a sign that said "Educators get educated! Don't muzzle our kids!"
"We can sit and debate about the efficacy of masks and vaccines, but what this boils down to for me is bodily autonomy," parent Timothy Lewis said.
The battle over masks in schools has been elevated to the Virginia Supreme Court.
"This case is before the Virginia Supreme Court and if the Supreme Court decides the executive order has precedence, this board will be back with another session," SCPS Board Chairperson Patricia Healy said. "But until that time, I feel it’s my duty to enforce the law."
Parent Karla Alsop, who has a second-grade daughter at Margaret Brent, said she has "no doubt" masks have negatively impacted her daughter's education, and she wants to have the choice of whether her daughter wears one or not.
"I hope the message received today is our kids matter to us," Alsop said. "That we feel like what they are doing is illegal and we’re not ok with that. It’s time for us to stand up and say that the learning that’s happening needs to be better, you need to follow the law and until you do so we will continue to be here, united, to put pressure until the school board changes its mind and follows the law."
Alsop, who helped organize the parent movement, said she made the decision to be at the school Monday after her daughter told her she didn't feel ready to start second grade because she "couldn't read like a second-grader."
"Those masks are directly impacting [our children's] ability to learn," Alsop said.
A Stafford County Public Schools spokesperson responded to WUSA9's questions on what would happen if students don't wear masks with this statement:
"Parents who elected not to have their children wear masks were provided with mutually agreed-upon access to classrooms either through Google Meet codes or other virtual instruction," SCPS spokesperson Sandra Osborn said. "The absences were marked excused, and the principal is working through the Request for Mask Exemption forms collected this morning."
In a statement, Youngkin said he was confident the Virginia Supreme Court would rule "in the favor of parents" but asked parents for their patience and cooperation.
"Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents," Youngkin said in a statement Saturday. "I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process."
Principal Fitzgerald also referenced Youngkin's ask for families to "listen to principals" as he answered parent questions about options for their kids Monday, and moving forward.
“We both agree that our ultimate goal here is to not interrupt the learning environment of our students," Fitzgerald said.