Virginia Senate votes to make masks optional at schools

Posted at 11:52 AM, Feb 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-15 22:53:53-05

NORFOLK, Va. - The Virginia Senate voted 21-17 to make masks optional in schools during their session on Wednesday afternoon.

The bill's passage in the Democratic controlled Senate suggests it's on a clear path to heading to Gov. Youngkin's desk, with Republicans in the majority in the House of Delegates.

“Kids across the Commonwealth win with this bipartisan vote today," Gov. Youngkin said in a statement following the vote.

Senators debated for more than an hour before passing the bill.

"There are many, many variables that affect the overall health of [children], and parents need to have the final say in how that's managed, and that includes masks," said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), who sponsored the bill.

Opponents argued the bill takes power away from locally-elected school boards.

"This bill doesn't provide an off-ramp that's guided by science. It just provides a full-stop lift of the mandate - regardless of the circumstances; regardless of the community transmission; regardless of the school district," said Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said he would move quickly in the House of Delegates to pass the bill.

The bill would fall in line with Gov. Youngkin's executive order, which makes masks optional at schools. The order has faced lawsuits, challenging whether the governor has the authority to make them optional.

The bill would become a law school boards have to follow.

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) proposed the amendment to make masks optional to an already existing Senate bill.

Petersen said Tuesday Youngkin could attach an emergency clause to make the legislation take effect immediately. That would require additional legislative action, but if everything passed, Petersen estimates masks could be optional by the end of the month.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Senate passed the bill with an added emergency clause. This will give school boards two weeks to implement the bill. The House now has to pass the bill.

Youngkin released the following statement following the passing of the bill:

Kids across the Commonwealth win with this bipartisan vote today. Parents are now empowered to decide whether their children should wear a mask in schools. I promised that as governor, Virginia would move forward with an agenda that empowers parents on the upbringing, education, and care of their own children. I am proud to continue to deliver on that promise. This vote also shows that school boards who are attacking their own students are stunningly detached from reality. It’s time to put kids first and get back to normal.

News 3 spoke with parents hoping universal masking would remain in place at their children's schools.

"Your choice to not send your child to school in a mask could negatively impact my child, or most importantly, someone else's child who's not as healthy," said Patti Money, a York County parent.

Mary Vause, a Newport News teacher and parent, worries if masks are optional many kids just won't wear them, making the buildings less safe.

"If school boards no longer have the ability to have local control on this issue and require mask mandates for the protection of students and staff, it's going to be really hard to get many people at all to wear a mask," said Vause.

Still, other parents have wanted masks to be optional. Rachel Kulak has been sending her son to a Henrico County school even though masks are required.

"I would like to see the choice be the parents. We know our children. We know what they need," Kulak told WTVR this week.

Click here for more Safely at School coverage.