Many Virginia schools will have to redo their COVID-19 mitigation strategies to comply with the new law.
RICHMOND—Well, it’s official. Masks are a thing of the past in Virginia schools.
On Feb. 16, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill (SB) 739 into law, including an amendment he added one day prior. The law does away with school mask requirements in Virginia, and the amendment makes the law effective by March 1.
This gives schools across the commonwealth less than two weeks to prepare for a change nearly two years in the making.
How did this happen so quickly? Basically, there are conflicting provisions in Virginia’s Constitution—and the legality of making SB 739 effective prior to July 1 hinged on those. We’ll break it down.
If you’re trying to pass emergency legislation in the Virginia General Assembly, a supermajority is necessary. That requires a 4/5ths vote from the House and Senate, which is 80/100 and 32/40 respectively.
If a bill passes through both chambers, the governor has the option to add an emergency clause as an amendment. Using that method, both the House and Senate would again just need a simple majority to pass an emergency clause.
Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert, a Republican, ruled in favor of a simple majority vote for the amendment Youngkin proposed for SB 739, which passed in both the House and Senate.
It’s not the first time something like this happened in recent history. Similar situations occurred in both 2020 and 2021 when Democrats controlled both chambers, passing emergency clauses former Gov. Ralph Northam proposed with a simple majority.
The Governor’s Remarks
The law swept through the General Assembly, which convened on Jan. 12. By Feb. 16, change became imminent for Virginia Schools.
Youngkin addressed a crowd that gathered to watch him sign SB 739 at the Capital Building in Richmond, with a wall of children standing on the stairs behind him.
“Today we are reestablishing and restoring power back to parents,” Youngkin said. “But we are also reestablishing our expectations that we will get back to normal, and this is the path.”
However, school divisions across the state made their opinions about masking known in January when more than half retaliated against Youngkin’s Executive Order Two, which also attempted to make masking optional for students.
Masks Becoming Optional
When school buildings reopened following the initial March 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns, they became some of the safest places for children.
A Virginia law, formerly SB 1303 in the 2021 General Assembly’s Special Session, required school districts to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 mitigation guidelines to the maximum extent practicable. Currently, that includes universal masking in K-12 schools.
Ahead of the signing, school divisions already started weighing in on the issue. In an email sent on Feb. 15, Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade thanked those in her district for their continued cooperation and collaboration.
“PWCS will be reviewing and revising our mitigation strategies as necessary to be consistent with the final version of the new legislation,” McDade said. “As always, any changes to our mitigation strategies will be made thoughtfully with the safety, health, and instructional needs of our students and staff at the forefront.”
By March 1, masking becomes optional for students across the commonwealth because of SB 739. Parents will not have to provide a reason or any certification of the child’s health or education status.