To Mask or Not to Mask Is the Question—But Is Youngkin’s Executive Order the Answer?

Image via L Julia / Shutterstock

By Amie Knowles

January 26, 2022

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate gathered recently to discuss Executive Order 2. 

RICHMOND—On his first day in office, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Executive Order 2. The document attempted to end the mask requirement for K-12 schools on Jan. 24, but some divisions kept masks in their policies. He later threatened to withhold funding from school districts if they didn’t comply with the order.

In the days following, Virginia parents, teachers, legislators, and even entire school divisions pushed back, providing reasons to keep the mask requirement in place. On Jan. 18, Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates and Virginia Senate held a press conference where they discussed Executive Order 2, compared to the current COVID-19 mitigation strategies in Virginia schools.

“I know being in schools is best for them, and their learning, and their socialization,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who serves Charles City County and portions of Henrico County, Hanover County, and the City of Richmond, at the conference. “But I also know that our schools [instate] efforts consistent with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to mitigate their risk of getting COVID. Not only is it the right thing to do; it’s required by law.”

What’s in Executive Order 2?

According to the order, if a parent deems that their child doesn’t need to wear a mask, they don’t need to provide the school with a health—or other—reason for their decision. 

The order lists reasons against child mask requirements, including: 

  • Children wearing the covering improperly
  • Less effectiveness of children’s masks, due to many children wearing cloth masks and the prolonged time spent wearing them
  • Children’s masks containing impurities like bacteria and parasites 
  • Limiting a child’s ability to communicate
  • Delaying language development
  • Impeding growth of emotional and social skills
  • Increasing mental health issues
  • That mask requirements demoralize children

However, both the CDC and the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) still recommend that children wear masks. 

“Face masks remain safe and reliable, and children have demonstrated their ability to wear them effectively,” a Jan. 17 document from the Virginia Chapter of the AAP read in part. 

Del. Jeff Bourne, who serves portions of Richmond City and Henrico County, also spoke at the conference where he called politicizing masks “irresponsible and immoral.” 

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, who serves the Greater Richmond region, shared a similar opinion at the conference, calling Youngkin’s “battle” against masks “really unfortunate.”

What About Senate Bill 1303? 

A Virginia law, formerly Senate Bill 1303 (SB 1303) in the 2021 General Assembly’s Special Session, requires school districts to follow the CDC’s COVID-19 mitigation guidelines. Executive Order 2 appears to go against that, leaving the option open solely to parental discretion.

At the press conference, McClellan noted that the order not only clashed with the law, but also went against mask requirements school divisions put in place on their own. 

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who serves Henrico County, also spoke at the press conference. He has a day job aside from his legislative obligations, where he teaches History and US Government at Glen Allen High School in Henrico County. VanValkenburg said that his goal is to have as many children learning in school five days a week as possible. Protections like those put in place through SB 1303—which also includes vaccination access for school staff—allow for that by putting safety first.

“We should be doing everything we can. We should be throwing the kitchen sink at keeping kids in school, which is what that bill sets up to do and why we have those mitigation strategies in place,” VanValkenburg said. “It’s a disappointment to say the least to see the governor issue Executive Order 2, which I think puts that at risk. It’s going to lead to more kids testing positive. It’s going to lead to more teachers testing positive. And while the Omicron variant is less dangerous than some of the ones in the past, it still needs to get out of the building. And if the goal is for kids to be in a school and the goal is for kids to learn at a high level, they have to be there, teachers have to be there, staff have to be there.”

Can the Governor Defund Schools?

If you’re wondering whether or not the Governor of Virginia can defund schools, you’re not alone. Dogwood asked the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Education Association, both of which respectfully declined an answer. 

According to McClellan at the conference, Youngkin defunding schools over not following Executive Order 2 isn’t possible.

“We’re here to say we support our school divisions doing what they need to do to keep our children and adults in those school buildings safe,” McClellan said. “We will not let the governor overstep his authority and bully our school system into doing what isn’t right.”

Hashmi called for the new governor to listen to the people of Virginia.

“Rather than threatening to withhold funding from our local school divisions—an authority that he really does not have—I would hope that the governor is listening to all of our parents and listening, importantly, to our experts—our physicians, our pediatricians, our families and educators—who are asking that we keep the mandate and that we continue to follow the safety protocols that have allowed us to return to school safely,” Hashmi said. 

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

SEE MORE: These School Divisions Have Sued Youngkin Over School Masks

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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