New Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order on his first day in office lifting the K-12 school mask mandate, saying that parents must be allowed to choose whether their children wear masks. The order comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain high in the state.
Administrators for a number of school districts in Northern Virginia said students will still be expected to wear masks to reduce the spread of the virus.
Youngkin, a Republican former business executive who won by less than 2 points, has promised a new approach to the pandemic. He has encouraged vaccination but opposed vaccine and mask mandates, emphasizing personal choice.
Here’s what Youngkin’s executive order says, what individual school districts say they'll do and some answers to big questions about what will happen starting Monday, Jan. 24.
What Does Youngkin’s Executive Order on Masks in Schools Say?
Executive Order Number Two, issued on Jan. 15, 2022, says the parents of elementary and secondary school students “may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.” It also applies to “school-based early childcare.”
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“No parent electing that a mask mandate should not apply to his or her child shall be required to provide a reason or make any certification concerning their child’s health or education,” the order says.
“A child whose parent has elected that he or she is not subject to a mask mandate should not be required to wear a mask under any policy implemented by a teacher,” the order continues.
School districts should “marshal any resources available” to improve ventilation, inspection, testing and more.
The order makes a number of arguments about children’s use of masks, including that children wear masks incorrectly; that kids’ masks can collect “bacteria and parasites;” that they delay language development and that they increase feelings of isolation.
Overall, the order conflicts with Virginia law that requires school districts to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on mitigating the spread of COVID. The guidelines recommend masks for all students and staff in schools.
When Does Youngkin’s Executive Order on the School Mask Mandate Go Into Effect?
It goes into effect at midnight, Monday, Jan. 24 and will be in effect until further notice.
Which Northern Virginia School Districts Are Implementing the Order and Which Are Not?
The public school districts in Culpeper County and Spotsylvania County said they will follow Youngkin’s order. A number of districts said they’ll keep mask requirements in place, including in Arlington County and Fairfax County. Here’s what we know so far.
Arlington Public Schools
The school system says it will continue to require all staff and students to wear masks inside on school grounds and on buses, "as part of our layered approach to safety."
Alexandria City Public Schools
Masks are still required in Alexandria City Public Schools, the superintendent said in a message Jan. 21. “Any student or staff who arrives without a mask will be provided one by the school.”
“On Jan. 20, 2022, the Alexandria City School Board voted to reaffirm its commitment to health and safety measures first adopted for ACPS in August 2020, including a universal mask requirement, daily temperature screenings and visitor limits for school facilities. The Virginia Constitution grants responsibility and authority to local school boards to operate and supervise schools in their division. These mitigation measures have been vital in making in-person learning possible so that ACPS can meet our students’ social, emotional and academic learning needs and abide by the Virginia General Assembly adopted Senate Bill 1303.”
Culpeper County Public Schools
Culpeper schools announced on Jan. 18 that they will follow Youngkin's order. Students, staff and visitors are no longer be required to wear masks outdoors or inside school buildings and facilities. Masks still must be worn on school buses and any bus chartered by CCPS, per a federal order, the school system said.
Diocese of Arlington Catholic Schools
In a letter to pastors, principals and heads of schools on Jan. 20, the diocese’s school superintendent directed schools to “continue following local public health guidance, without however, violating the rights of parents as described in Executive Order 2.”
“The governor’s executive order is clear on the right of parents not to have their child be subject to a mask mandate,” the letter went on to say. “Heads of school and principals should provide updated school-specific guidance to faculty/staff and parents in the wake of this letter.”
Fairfax County Public Schools
"FCPS continues to require universal mask wearing in alignment with CDC guidance. Our layered prevention strategies have proven effective in keeping transmission rates low in our schools." Superintendent Scott Brabrand said officials are reviewing Youngkin's order and will share any updates as needed.
Falls Church City Schools
The Falls Church City School Board directed the superintendent to issue regulations and/or implement practices to put a policy into operation that should include mask wearing opt-out provisions for students by parents. Opt-out provisions shouldn't go into effect until Feb. 14 or until the Virginia Department of Health designates Falls Church’s level of community transmission of COVID-19 in the “moderate range.”
Fauquier County Public Schools
The Fauquier County School board voted Jan. 20 to make masks optional for students and staff. The new policy starts Monday.
Fredericksburg City Public Schools
The school system says it will continue to require that all students, staff and visitors wear masks inside schools and on buses. "Layered prevention strategies have been successful in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools which has allowed us to provide in-person learning that is required by Virginia law."
Loudoun County Public Schools
The Loudoun County School Board voted Jan. 18 to continue its mask mandate for students, staff and visitors as recommended by the CDC. “We acknowledge that these ongoing mitigation measures are not ideal or easy, and we will keep monitoring transmission data, advice from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), and continue consultation with the local Loudoun County Health Department,” a news release from the superintendent said.
Manassas City Public Schools
The school system will continue to require masks in alignment with CDC guidance. "MCPS is aware of the executive order issued by the Governor over the weekend. The School Board of the City of Manassas will continue to share any updated information around division COVID-19 protocols with the MCPS community as needed."
Prince William County Public Schools
Masks are still required through at least the week of Jan. 17 before school officials make any possible changes.
Spotsylvania County Public Schools
The Spotsylvania County School Board voted on Jan. 18 to rescind its policy that required masks for students, teachers and visitors. Go here for more info.
Stafford County Public Schools
The Stafford County School Board voted 5-2 to continue to require masks.
Is There a Punishment for School Districts That Keep Their Mask Mandates in Place?
It’s unclear so far.
Arlington County said in a tweet on Saturday, Jan. 15, Youngkin’s Inauguration Day, that their school mask mandate would remain in place. Reporter Nick Iannelli, of News4’s partner WTOP, asked the new governor about the school district’s choice. Youngkin said his office would explore their options.
“The fact that that tweet came out from Arlington County within minutes of my executive order — what that tells me is that they didn't listen to parents yet,” he said. “If there is one thing that hopefully everybody heard in November, is it is time to listen to parents. So, over the course of this week, I hope they will listen to parents, because we will use every resource within the governor's authority to explore what we can do and will do in order to make sure that parents' rights are protected.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, an Arlington County parent, chimed in online and thanked the school district for “standing up for our kids, teachers and administrators and their safety in the midst of a transmissible variant.”
What We Know About Masks in Schools and Virginia COVID Statistics
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students 2 and older, school staff and visitors wear masks in all K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
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Research continues to show that masks are an effective way to reduce COVID transmission in schools, Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech professor and engineer who specializes in airborne transmission of infectious diseases, previously told News4.
“This is an especially important time for us to be wearing better masks like an N95 because we’re in the middle of a huge surge in omicron, and omicron is so much more transmissible than the other variants we’ve seen,” Marr said on Jan. 13 in video footage released by Virginia Tech. Her comments were unrelated to Youngkin’s plans.
COVID cases and hospitalizations climbed dramatically in the state over the past month and appear to be declining. Now-former Gov. Ralph Northam issued an emergency order last week to boost hospital staff and increase capacity. Youngkin said he supported the order.