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Order letting parents opt out of schools' COVID-19 mask mandates takes effect in Virginia

By Adam Schrader
Order letting parents opt out of schools' COVID-19 mask mandates takes effect in Virginia
The suit filed Monday says that Gov. Glenn Youngkin's order overrides a state law that requires school districts to follow health guidelines from the CDC to the "maximum extent practicable." File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 24 (UPI) -- A divisive executive order by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took effect on Monday allowing parents to opt out of school mask requirements, even amid a new legal challenge from several school boards in the state.

The new Republican governor signed the order on Jan. 15, the day he took office. It says parents "may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child's school or educational program."

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The order, however, has caused some confusion statewide about whether it conflicts with state law.

The seven school boards that are behind the new lawsuit serve some of the largest districts in Virginia. They are located in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Hampton, Richmond and Prince William County.

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Collectively, the districts represent more than 350,000 Virginia students.

"At issue is whether locally elected school boards will maintain the exclusive authority and responsibility ... over supervision of the public schools in their respective communities, or whether an executive order can unilaterally override that constitutional authority," Arlington Public Schools said in a statement Monday.

"Also at issue is whether a governor can, through executive order, without legislative action by the Virginia General Assembly, reverse a lawfully-adopted statute," it added. "In this case, Senate Bill 1303, adopted with the goal of returning students to safe in-person instruction five days a week in March 2021 and still legally in effect, provides that local school boards should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health and safety requirements."

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The school boards argue that they have adopted policies and practices calling for the continued wearing of masks by all students and staff while at school to protect them against COVID-19.

The suit says Youngkin's order overrides a state law passed last summer with bipartisan support that requires districts to follow health guidelines from the CDC to the "maximum extent practicable."

The CDC recommends that students, teachers, staff and visitors weak masks indoors regardless of vaccination status -- as well as maintaining at least 3 feet of physical distance.

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"Today's action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students," Arlington Public Schools added. "This lawsuit is not brought out of choice, but out of necessity."

Data from Virginia's Health Department shows that there have been about 305,000 COVID-19 cases involving children under 19 since the start of the pandemic two years ago.

The seven-day moving average for cases per day in Virginia is now almost 14,000, according to the CDC.

Youngkin did not immediately respond to the new lawsuit on Monday.

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