RICHMOND, Va. — After ongoing debate, masks and face coverings will be optional in all Virginia public schools after new legislation passed its final hurdle in the House of Delegates.
Legislators approved Senate Bill 739 on a party-line vote, 52-48, on the House floor on Wednesday. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the bill just a few hours later, to lift school mask mandates across the Commonwealth. The governor included an emergency clause to make the bill effective no later than March 1.
"Children have not only suffered learning loss, they have suffered relationship loss," Youngkin said Wednesday. "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."
It's a move the newly elected Virginia governor has been trying to make since he was first sworn in. On day one as governor, Youngkin signed the highly controversial Executive Order 2 on masks in schools that was met with pushback almost immediately from school districts across the Commonwealth, including several in Northern Virginia that challenged it legally in the Arlington Circuit Court and won.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said the bill was bad policy and seemed rushed to better serve Youngkin. He argued whether the amended bill needed a simple majority vote or four-fifths majority vote.
In Loudoun County Public Schools, originally masks were going to become optional on February 22, however, a judge approved an injunction filed by three parents to remove the mandate immediately after Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739.
The superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools, Scott A. Ziegler, released a statement saying the decision to wear a mask or not is deeply personal for many families. He asks that everyone respect the decision of others.
"No one should be made to feel uncomfortable about their choice," said Ziegler.
The court also ordered that any disciplinary action taken against students who were previously punished for not wearing a mask will be expunged from their records. A ruling Ziegler says LCPS will follow.
In a letter to Prince William County Schools families and employees on Friday, Superintendent LaTanya D. McDade outlined the recent changes to Virginia law regarding students wearing masks in schools, and said PWCS students will not be required to wear masks as of Feb. 22.
McDade reiterated, however, that staff members are required to continue wearing masks during times of high community transmission of COVID-19.
The Stafford County School Board voted 5-2 in favor of rescinding the universal mask mandate for students, staff and visitors. The decision was met with cheers and applause by parents who attended the emergency meeting. Some were seen holding signs rejecting masks. The change officially takes effect on February 22nd.
Fairfax and Arlington County Public Schools plan to end their mask requirements on March 1st.
"I think it should be up to schools, local schools," said Liz Kelley, a Fairfax County Public Schools parent. "I think that schools know what’s best and are doing what’s best for their communities as they have for the past two years."
Another Fairfax County parent was excited for the bill's passage.
“This mask issue has been a wedge," Christy Hudson said. "We haven’t had a lot of control, we haven’t had a lot of say and with this new legislation, it finally feels like parents are empowered to have some input on their children’s education and how they're treated in schools."
The Fairfax County Parents Association celebrated the passage of SB 739.
"Over the past two years it has become apparent to all—though our parents understood it by the summer of 2020—how academically and emotionally damaging forced virtual school was for most students," the group said in a statement. "We are pleased that the Commonwealth is prioritizing the needs of children with SB739 and establishing a statewide baseline expectation that all school districts provide children with the in-person learning they need to thrive."
Falls Church City Public Schools declined specific comment on the actions in Richmond, other than to say that the school board adopted JA Pandemic Student Mask Policy on Jan. 20, which included a mask-wearing opt-out provision that went into effect on Feb. 14. To date, the district wrote, parents of 154 students, or 6.1% of the student population, have opted out of mask-wearing.
Meanwhile, during testimony over SB 739 before its passage, teachers warned of resignations.
"I don't think this administration is prepared to attract, train and retain the number of teachers once resignations come in," said one Waynesboro science teacher to the House committee. "This is going to be at a crisis level."