Richmond among 7 school districts challenging Gov. Youngkin’s executive order on masks

Published: Jan. 24, 2022 at 1:04 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 24, 2022 at 8:25 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Richmond Public Schools (RPS) is among seven total school districts challenging the governor’s executive order on masks.

RPS is joining Fairfax, Hampton, Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, and Prince William County in a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order Number 2.

According to the Associated Press, his executive action aims to let parents opt out of school mask mandates as his order went into effect on Monday.

However, confusion has swirled over its implications. Some districts have interpreted the order as being at odds with a state law that deals with COVID-19 mitigation in schools and have opted to keep pre-existing mask mandates in place for students.

In a press release, Fairfax County Public school leaders spoke about their decision to take legal action:

“This lawsuit is not brought out of choice but out of necessity. With COVID-19 transmission rates high, our hospitals at crisis level, and the continued recommendation of health experts to retain universal mask-wearing for the time being, this is simply not the time to remove this critical component of layered health and safety mitigation strategies. School divisions need to continue to preserve their authority to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable, who need these mitigation measures perhaps more than anyone to be able to continue to access in-person instruction.”

RPS’ school board is staying tight-lipped about this legal action. Still, members went into a closed session yesterday - coming out with a 5-3 decision to take legal action, and maintain the current school district COVID-19 protocol.

The school divisions say they would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.

A spokesperson for the governor released a statement in response to the lawsuit.

“We are disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents’ rights. The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education, and care, as the legal process plays out.”

The Office of the Attorney General also responded.

“An unfortunate side effect of the COVID-19 emergency has been the irreversible harm to our children’s mental health and experience in the classroom. The Attorney General stands by the Governor’s executive order. The General Assembly has given him the power to take appropriate steps to confront this emergency and his determination that parents should make decisions regarding the health, wellbeing, and safety of their children was an appropriate use of that power. As we wait for the Supreme Court’s guidance, the Attorney General’s office urges parents to listen to their principals. We have faith in the legal process and will not be commenting further on the pending litigation at this time.”

This follows a lawsuit filed last week by 13 Chesapeake parents against Governor Youngkin’s optional mask mandate.

Amber Bowman is one of those parents who filed the lawsuit and said she knew that more support would come.

“In addition to keeping the children of Virginia safe during a pandemic, which is the worst pandemic that we have seen in the United States, it is also ultimately about following the law of the Virginia constitution,” Bowman said.

Attorneys for the Chesapeake lawsuit amended their lawsuit on Monday to put more information in front of the Virginia Supreme Court following new developments last week.

This includes new guidance released by the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education on Friday and the Chesapeake School Board removing its mask mandate on Thursday.

Legal analysts say both sides have a strong argument, but it will be up to the courts to decide who wins the battle.

“I think it’s clear that everyone has the same concerns; that is the well-being of the children who are attending public schools,” Steve Benjamin, NBC12′s legal analyst, said. “The question is who has the overriding authority to ensure the safety of these children within the schools.”

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