NORFOLK, Va. - Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a controversial bill into law Wednesday afternoon, making masks optional for students in Virginia schools by March 1.
The bill passed both the state Senate and House of Delegates after Gov. Youngkin sent the bill back to lawmakers with the recommendation school boards follow the law by that date.
Lawmakers had to vote again Wednesday to accept Youngkin's recommendation, and it passed the General Assembly.
The bill would take effect immediately, but the governor wanted to give school boards two weeks to establish new policies, an aide to the governor said.
Since the bill originated in the Senate, Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach) said that chamber had to vote first.
Democrats have a slim 21-19 majority in the Senate. Last week, three Democrats voted to make masks optional, but it was unclear whether all three would support the policy taking effect March 1.
Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) previously told News 3 he supports ending universal masking policies as quickly as possible. With his vote, there were enough votes for it to pass the Senate. In the House, Republicans have a four-seat majority.
Gov. Youngkin signed an executive order in January, making it so parents could opt out of their children wearing masks at school, but the order has faced a series of legal challenges.
Despite the executive order, several school divisions have kept universal masking policies in place, including in Portsmouth.
School Board Chair Dr. Cardell Patillo said he doesn't support the bill but would follow what becomes law.
"I believe that local school boards should have the authority to govern what happens in their school divisions based on metrics of their community," he said. "The metrics of southwest or northern Virginia are not the same as the City of Portsmouth."
Today's new law regarding student masks does not go into effect until March 1. Masks are still required until then. pic.twitter.com/T8mL3rIGWq— Portsmouth Schools (@PortsVASchools) February 16, 2022
The mask debate continues to divide people and has caused so much discourse at school board meetings.
For some kids, including Adonis George, 10, the new law is making them smile from ear to ear.
“Good,” said George on how he feels about the new law.
George is a fourth grader at James Monroe Elementary in Norfolk, where masks are mandatory. He said wearing a mask all day makes it hard for him to breathe.
“When I’m at recess at school, I’d be out of breath and the teacher won’t let me take my mask off,” George said.
Not everyone is happy about the news.
Third grade Norfolk teacher Jennifer Peronnet said it’ll be the first time Norfolk schools will make masks optional.
“Not necessarily what I think is best for the overall system and the kids and the teachers and all,” she said.
Peronnet is not surprised by the move, but the new law concerns her.
“I don’t think the risk of getting ill is gone,” Peronnet said. “I’ve had several students and teachers in our building out at different times being sick, and it’s virtually impossible to keep third graders - any students - far enough apart on an ongoing basis to stay healthy.”
Parent to second grader Jules Owen, Lucia Owen said her daughter has had to wear a mask since kindergarten. Now without it, she’s noticed a big difference.
“She seems to be a lot more like a child again where she’s capable of, kind of happy-go-lucky where she’s not so stressed out.” said Lucia Owen. “She said that she feels a lot more free. She’s capable of smiling and seeing her friends smile."
The Virginia NAACP also released a statement denouncing the bill, saying that it demonstrates a "relentless disregard" for children, especially children of color, and makes schools "less safe and inaccessible."
The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP (Virginia NAACP) abhors the passage of Senate Bill 739 (SB 739) with Senator Chap Petersen’s amendment where parents are allowed to opt their child out of wearing a mask in school without an explanation required.
“It is disappointing to the Virginia NAACP that Senator Chap Petersen would put forth such an amendment that will knowingly harm the health and safety of our children, teaching staff, and staff personnel in schools,” said Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette, Jr. “His sly tactics will now increase the odds that hundreds of thousands of Virginia's children may spread and contract COVID-19 while in school.”
SB 739 now, more than before, demonstrates a relentless disregard for the well-being of Virginia’s children and makes schools less safe and inaccessible; especially for our children of color who are already detrimentally and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and behind because of discriminatory barriers in our education systems.
The Virginia NAACP stands by science and the CDC’s guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools, and with that comes the requirement of masks for our children. Requiring masks in schools is a preventative measure and we will continue to support and encourage all children to wear masks at school and on school buses. To be on any other side is an outright failure to protect the health of the most innocent among us, children.
Virginia NAACP urges all NAACP members and allies to take bold action against SB 739 and urges the House of Delegates upon receipt of SB 739 to reject the bill’s blatant failure to protect school children from the deadly COVID-19 virus and therefore, take all necessary steps to protect students, teachers, administrators, and all school staff.