Local schools respond to Gov. Youngkin's executive order on masks in school

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Posted at 12:57 PM, Jan 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-18 06:18:22-05

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Local school divisions are responding to Gov. Youngkin's executive order rescinding mask mandates inside of schools.

The executive order doesn't take effect until January 24, so the previous order requiring masks in schools remains in effect for this week.

"Mask use will remain in effect this week as the school division waits on further guidance and assesses the safety and operational impact of Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order Number Two which rescinds mask mandates in schools and the previous Interim Guidance COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools effective January 24, 2022," the Newport News School division said in a statement.

It's a similar message in Virginia Beach. "Department of Public Health, the Virginia Department of Education and our own health services team on how this order impacts us and how best to comply," the school division said in a message to parents.

In Portsmouth, School Board Chair Dr. Cardell Patillo said he plans to ask his colleagues to vote this week to continue to make masks mandatory.

"Our number one priority is making sure that our students and our staff are as safe as possible," Patillo said.

Youngkin says the order is about giving parents choices.

"Permitting parents to make decisions on where and when to wear masks permits the Commonwealth’s parents to make the best decision for the circumstances confronting each child," he wrote in the order.

Still, other school divisions in Richmond and Northern Virginia say masks will still be mandatory, regardless of the order.

News 3 asked Dr. Patillo how Portsmouth's policy would work if it's in conflict with Youngkin's order. "We're going to be consulting with our school board attorney what our strategies should be and what our actions should be," he responded.

Watch: Youngkin sworn in as Virginia's 74th governor

In the order, Younkin cites a part of Virginia code that says, "A parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent's child."

Opponents of the order cite a state law that passed in the General Assembly, saying school divisions must offer in-person learning and follow CDC recommendations. Wearing masks inside of school buildings remains a recommendation.

One of the original sponsors of the bill says it does not mandate masks. “SB1303 has been used against our children and against its intent this school year to advance an agenda. SB1303 does not mandate the use of masks in school because the CDC does not mandate masks," said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico).

Youngkin responded Sunday and said he believes he has the authority to issue the order. "We will use every resource within the governor's authority to explore what we can do and will do to make sure that parents' rights are protected," he said.

Still, the future remains unclear. Conservative State Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach) posted on Facebook he believes the issue will wind up in court due to the state law.

Jack Preis, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told WTVR it's important to note Youngkin's order refers to the state code regarding parents' rights and not the bill passed last year.

“My guess is that Governor Youngkin realized that if he focuses the order on what school boards can do, it brings it into more obvious conflict with the state statute,” Preis said. “So, what he tried to do instead is focus on the rights of parents. It also has the benefit from his perspective of being able to tell parents, ‘look at my order, it speaks directly to you.’ Just because it speaks to parents, however, doesn’t mean it can avoid the strictures of the state statute.”

Local parents say they're closely following the order and the debate.

"To say they don't like it is an understatement," Virginia Beach parent Chas Faison said about sons' views on masks. "It's uncomfortable. It's hard for them to breathe."

Chesapeake parent Matthew Castillo hopes the mandate remains in effect. "My children actually like wearing masks," he said. "I know for a fact that can't be every child's opinion. My kids also like broccoli and drink milk."

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