‘School systems are in a tough position here’: Response to Youngkin’s mask executive order grows

Published: Jan. 17, 2022 at 5:48 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 17, 2022 at 5:54 PM EST
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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - A handful of school systems have come out in response to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order on lifting the mask mandate in schools.

While the measure does not take effect until Jan. 24, there are some school systems in Central Virginia that have not made their stance clear just yet.

However, Henrico County Public Schools told NBC12 its plan even before Youngkin was inaugurated on Saturday.

“Even if the mask mandate is lifted by the Governor, existing HCPS protocols would remain in place unless they were changed by our school board,” said HCPS spokeswoman Eileen Cox.

However, one element of Youngkin’s executive order states a teacher, school or school district cannot force a child to wear a mask if their parent doesn’t want them to.

“School systems are in a tough position here, in a sense they’re getting inconsistent messages,” said Mary Bauer, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Bauer said there is no doubt litigation will spawn from Youngkin’s executive order on masking in schools; much of it tied to the current laws passed in Virginia.

“The General Assembly actually passed a bill last session requiring schools to comply with CDC guidelines to the maximum extent possible,” Bauer said. “The governor’s order is flatly inconsistent with that.”

Opinions on all sides of the issue have been shared since the executive order was signed.

“We don’t have a lot of tools,” said Melissa Dart, a Henrico parent. “So, even if these masks help mitigate the number of cases a little bit, that protects us while we’re going through this surge.”

However, many parents believe masks should be a choice, calling on the school board to listen to parents.

“Allow us to make the decisions instead of being forced into agreement as was the case earlier this school year,” said Scott Edwards, a parent.

Youngkin echoed that sentiment Sunday:

“First of all, we wrote the order specifically to give all schools system basically eight days to get ready, to listen to parents, and the fact that that tweet came out from Arlington county within minutes of my executive order what that tells me is that they didn’t listen to parents yet. If there is one thing that hopefully everybody heard in November, is it is time to listen to parents. Over the course of this week, I hope they will listen to parents because we will use every resource within the governor’s authority to explore what we can do and will do in order to make sure that parents’ rights are protected. The code of Virginia is really clear - parents have a right ot make decisions with regard to their children’s upbringing, education, and care - we are going to protect that right and so I just hope that Arlington county schools and the rest of the school systems around the Commonwealth of Virginia use this week to listen to parents and get prepared because we granted parents the option of deciding whether they want their child to wear a mask or not - and we are going to protect that right.”

However, hours later, Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) sent an email to families reiterating its stance on continuing with the mask policy.

“The HCPS School Board and administration respect that parents make decisions for their families; however, division leaders must make decisions for the collective safety of nearly 49,000 students and 10,000 employees and fulfill HCPS’ responsibility to provide in-person instruction,” a news release said.

“I’m very grateful to the leadership of Henrico County School Board, and I hope they continue because I know there are only a handful of counties who have come out since that EO,” Dart added. “I’m incredibly grateful that I live in one of those counties.”

The Henrico Education Association President also said HCPS made the right decision in terms of health, safety and justice.

However, Edwards believes the current mask policy is ineffective in stopping COVID-19 in schools, citing the number of positive cases.

“Latest guidance is that hospital grade masks are the only ones that are effective, yet we continue the charade,” he said. Due to scheduling conflicts, an on-camera interview was not available with Edwards.

Unlike Richmond Public Schools and HCPS, Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) and Hanover County Public Schools did not come out with a stance right away.

“Chesterfield Schools awaits the referenced guidance from the Superintendent of Public Instruction (as the Superintendent of Public Instruction is directed by the Governor to issue such guidance),” a CCPS email said.

Additionally, CCPS said it would review the guidance as it relates to other state and federal guidelines including:

  • Senate Bill 1303, which remains in effect through Aug. 1, 2022, stating in-person instruction must be offered and any currently applicable mitigation strategies provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must be followed
  • Virginia Occupational Safety and Health COVID-19 workplace standards
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace guidelines A federal public health order requiring individuals to wear a mask when using public transportation, including school buses

“You know there are people saying, why are you not making the fully throated defense of your policies that Richmond and Henrico are making,” said Skip Choate, a retired Chesterfield teacher. “I know there’s a strong constituency in Chesterfield that feel and are saying, your Governor is clearly giving you can’t do this; why are you even questioning.”

Hanover Schools emailed families on Monday stating the previous mask order will remain in effect for all staff, students and visitors this week while inside the schools.

“In the meantime, we will continue to evaluate the new order in conjunction with our School Board and local public health officials,” Hanover Schools said in the email. “Additionally, we will monitor any further developments that may occur prior to its implementation next Monday and will communicate more information later this week as we learn more.”

Youngkin’s executive order is set to go into effect on Monday, Jan. 24 at 12 a.m.

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