VIRGINIA, USA — Although the newly inaugurated Virginia governor has made clear his stance on mandatory mask-wearing in public schools, some Northern Virginia districts don't agree.
Less than a day into his tenure, Youngkin signed a total of 11 executive actions - most of which have to do with what's taught in schools and easing COVID-19 safety measures.
According to Executive Order Two (2022) and Order of Public Health Emergency One, mask-wearing in schools will be optional in Virginia beginning Jan. 24, empowering parents to decide whether children should wear the masks.
Culpeper schools announced Tuesday that they will be following the governor's order, stating that masks covering the nose and mouth are now optional for students, staff, and visitors. Stafford County also appears to be ready to switch to mask-optional when the executive order takes effect.
However, Arlington, Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William county schools have all announced that their mask guidelines will be staying in place, despite Youngkin's orders.
“As we return to school after the holiday weekend, we want to let you know that FCPS will continue universal masking for all students and staff,” FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand put out in a statement Sunday. "Adhering to our layered prevention strategies, especially universal masking, keeps our schools open and safe places for students to learn."
The school system said that its policy is in alignment with the CDC guidance, and that they will review the executive order issued by Youngkin.
Arlington Public Schools will also continue to require all staff and students to wear masks inside on school grounds, as well as on buses.
“Universal mask use has proven effective in keeping COVID-19 transmission rates low in our schools and ensuring schools remain safe and open,” APS said in a statement tweeted out Saturday.
APS shared that their initial masking policy was implemented prior to former Gov. Northam’s K-12 mask mandate.
Youngkin, however, says that the universal masking requirement in schools has “provided inconsistent health benefits . . . [and] inflicted notable harm and proven to be impracticable.”
“Masks inhibit the ability of children to communicate, delay language development, and impede the growth of emotional and social skills," the governor wrote in one of his first executive orders. "Some children report difficulty breathing and discomfort as a result of masks. Masks have also increased feelings of isolation, exacerbating mental health issues, which in many cases pose a greater health risk to children than COVID-19. Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, mask mandates in schools have proved demoralizing to children facing these and other difficulties."
Prince William County Schools and Alexandria City Public Schools have also added that they are sticking with their current mandates. ACPS has already received shipments of K95s for all students and staff, they said in a letter to community members Sunday.
Loudoun County Public Schools says masks would continue to be required in schools for at least the week of Jan. 17, until the governor's order can be fully reviewed.
"LCPS will review the updated guidance from the Governor’s Office, the Virginia Department of Education, and the Virginia Department of Health and will provide new information to LCPS families and staff on Wednesday, January 19," Superintendent Scott Ziegler said in a press release Monday.
Stafford County schools appear to be the first to issue a statement indicating they would change their policy once the executive order takes effect.
"We will continue with our current mitigation strategies when we return to school buildings on Tuesday, January 18, 2022," Superintendent Thomas W. Taylor said in a letter sent to parents and staff Sunday. "These strategies include the wearing of face masks until the EO takes effect on January 24, 2022."
The executive order challenges a bipartisan law passed last year that required schools to offer in-person classes while following the fullest extent of mitigation strategies from the CDC, which includes wearing masks in schools and buses.
Law professor Carl Tobias indicated there could be a lawsuit in the works.
"It's not clear that the governor can then override that General Assembly law which is in the code," Tobias said. "It may be that the school districts themselves or particular parents might sue to overturn what the new governor purportedly did."
Parents and teachers throughout Northern Virginia have expressed concerns about the executive order. The layer of protection has provided a sense of safety to teachers in Arlington County where they are already waiting on a shipment of KN95 and N95 masks.
"Masks are something that we really have to have and must have to continue to do the jobs that we do," Arlington Education Association President Ingrid Gant said.
Yet, there are many parents who are in support of the order, like Shawnna Yashar of Fairfax County. She plans to send a note to her children's school and administrator that she will choose to exempt them from the mask mandate. She said her son, who has a learning disability, has struggled with learning because of masks.
"He's 9-years-old and dyslexic and it's really hard for him to hear particular sounds and distinguish other sounds in the alphabet," Yashar said. "And having those masks makes it really hard for him to see the teacher's lips move or for the teachers to hear him or correct his speech when it's not correct. So it really has been affecting his education."
Current CDC guidance still recommends indoor masking for all individuals ages two years and older, including students, teachers, staff, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. The agency does specify some exceptions, including people who can not wear a mask or cannot safely wear a mask due to a disability, “as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
They’ve also specified an exception for anyone when wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty, “as determined by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations."