A judge has ruled that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin's mask order in schools has gone too far.
In an opinion letter signed Friday, Circuit Court of Arlington County Judge Louise D. Matteo ruled Youngkin's Executive Order Two goes against a state law saying school divisions have to follow guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which includes masking in schools.
"While the General Assembly has granted to the Governor significant and sweeping general powers to address an emergency, when confronted with a specific statute addressing the manner in which in-person learning can resume and directs local school boards to follow the guidance of the CDC, 'to the maximum extent practicable,' it does not follow that the Governor, even in an emergency, can direct the School Boards to ignore the General Assembly's deference to CDC guidance and to abandon their considered determination about what is practicable regarding those mitigation strategies," the letter reads.
The Schools Boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County filed a lawsuit last month to challenge the constitutionality of Executive Order Two issued by the governor on January 15.
“School boards are placed in a legally untenable position - faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law,” Hampton City Schools said in a press release.
Friday's ruling only applies to the plaintiffs of the aforementioned lawsuit. As a result, Hampton City Schools is the only local school district that can have a universal mask mandate.
Executive Order Two gave Virginia parents, instead of school officials, the right to decide whether their child wears a mask in school. It went into effect on January 24.
These school boards are not the first parties to take legal action against the executive order.
A group of parents from Chesapeake filed a lawsuit where they state that Gov. Youngkin does not have the authority that he claims to make masks optional in schools, also requesting that the effective date of the executive order be suspended.
News 3 reached out to a legal expert to help break down exactly what Friday's ruling means.
The court’s opinion will only apply to the school districts that were plaintiffs in that particular lawsuit. That being said, for school districts that want to retain mask mandates and have been uncertain about whether they could do so consistent with the Governor’s Executive Order, the court’s opinion certainly makes it more likely that these school districts could succeed in their own suit," said John F. Preis, Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Richmond explained.
Preis explained that for school districts that have made masks optional, the court’s opinion does not mean that these school districts are violating the law. He says local districts still have some discretion to adopt mask-optional policies, even if the Supreme Court of Virginia declared the order null and void.
In that case, those districts would only need to be able to argue that it is no longer “practicable” to follow CDC guidelines with regard to masking. If a parent who objects to mask-optional policies were to sue the district, Preis says a court would have to decide whether requiring masks was “practicable” or not.
Hampton City Schools issued the following statement, in part, after Friday's temporary injunction:
We look forward to a day in the not-too-distant future when universal mask-wearing is no longer needed as part of our layered health mitigation strategies in order to keep our schools open for in-person learning, but that day is not yet here. We would like to thank our community for their diligence and patience as we navigate these challenging times, keeping the safety and best interests of our students and staff at the forefront in our communities.
News 3 reporter Brendan Ponton sat down with the governor a few hours before the ruling came down Friday, where Youngkin defended the executive orders he's made in the few weeks since he's been in office.
Youngkin's spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, also told News 3 they are planning to appeal and that this is the first step in the judicial process. Porter provided us with the following statement:
"The governor will never stop fighting for parents’ ability to choose what is best for their children. The governor often said that this is not a pro-mask or anti-mask debate. It’s about parents knowing what’s best for their child’s health, and opting-out should there be a mask mandate. More voices, including from the scientific and medical community, call into question the efficacy behind a universal mask mandate for children. This is about what’s best for their kid’s health and who can best make that decision. We are going to appeal, this is just the first step in the judicial process."