Mask mandates in question at local schools

A controversial executive order has school districts defending their decisions to keep mask mandates in place.

Shauna Muckle

Local school districts are keeping their mask mandates in place for now, despite a state executive order that says parents can choose whether their kids wear masks at school.

But further action at the state level could change the current calculus, officials representing Lexington City Schools and Rockbridge County Public Schools said.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued Executive Order Number Two on Jan. 15, his first day in office. The order prohibits school boards from imposing mask mandates on children, instead leaving the decision up to parents.

The order went into effect Jan. 24, but as of Feb. 2, more than half of Virginia’s school districts had decided to keep their mask mandates in place, according to a Washington Post analysis. 

Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County public schools all chose to maintain their mask mandates. School district officials said that a state law implemented in 2021, Senate Bill 1303, motivated their decision to disregard the executive order.

Dr. Phillip Thompson, superintendent of Rockbridge County Public Schools, said the law requires that “to the greatest extent practicable” school boards follow COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the CDC continues to recommend wearing masks indoors in high-transmission areas, the RCPS School Board determined that they had an obligation to uphold the district’s mask mandate, Thompson said.

“We were fairly certain, our attorneys were certain, that SB 1303 was the law of the land,” Thompson said. “Certainly while the governor’s executive order has authority, it does not have the authority to overrule any standing law that’s been there for almost a year now.”

Tim Diette, school board chair for Lexington City Schools, said his board’s attorneys similarly concluded that the executive order’s legal standing was unclear. The board released a statement reminding parents that the district’s mask policy remained in place.

But Diette said he doesn’t think the LCS board is defying the executive order by maintaining a mask mandate. If the order gains a stronger legal foothold, he said, the board will promptly change their policy.

“If there was something that came down tomorrow, and the court said, ‘Oh no, you must follow the executive order,’” then we’d call for an immediate meeting to make sure we’re in line with the law,” Diette said.

Some parents, however, disagree with local boards’ interpretation of state law.

At a RCPS board meeting Feb. 8, several parents spoke in opposition to the board’s continued mask mandate. One parent, Brandy Connell-Marando, read a statement from state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, Senate Bill 1303’s sponsor, that argued school districts have misinterpreted the legislation.

“SB 1303 has been used against our children and against its intent this school year to advance an agenda,” Dunnavant’s statement said. “SB 1303 does not mandate the use of masks in school because the CDC does not mandate masks.”

Thompson said schools in his district had met some resistance from parents when the executive order went into effect. That included five phone calls from parents questioning the district’s decision to uphold a mask mandate, as well as some who tried to send their kids to school without masks. 

Those parents were given two options: make their kids wear masks, or take them home. While most families consented to masking, one parent decided to take their child home rather than comply, Thompson said.

“We don’t want that,” Thompson said. “We’d rather have their child in school, but I understand that’s a family decision.”

Since its implementation, Youngkin’s executive order has already faced multiple lawsuits. On Feb. 8, Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo issued a temporary injunction against enforcement of the order in seven of the state’s largest school districts. The judge said Youngkin does not have the authority to override state law or local school boards’ authority via executive order.

The Virginia Supreme Court may make a final call on the executive order’s legality.

But the executive order isn’t the only threat to school mask mandates. On Feb. 9, the Democrat-led Virginia Senate cleared a bill that ends mask mandates in schools. Three Democrats joined with Republicans to pass the measure, which is expected to pass in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates and land on the governor’s desk.

Though local school officials are aware of the bill’s progress, they noted that the bill as written won’t take effect until July 1, after the current school year ends. The governor would need to request additional legislative action to allow the law to go into effect immediately after being signed.

Diette and Wendy Lovell, chair of the RCPS School Board, said that if state law does end up forcing their districts to abruptly abandon mask mandates, they will continue to recommend masks until COVID-19 transmission rates in the Rockbridge area decline.

Lovell said that masks are a core part of ensuring that kids continue to learn in-person.

“For that first year we heard a lot of, ‘Get our kids back in school,’” Lovell said. “Well, that’s what we’ve tried to do. We see the mask mandate as one of the strategies to keep the students in school.” 

Lovell said that the high rate of transmission in Rockbridge County has already caused problems, even with mask requirements still in place. Rockbridge County High School had a virtual day Jan. 28 due to the number of teachers and staff in quarantine, she said.

“We can’t run our schools if we don’t have staff and teachers,” Lovell said. “[Virginia has] one of the top public education systems in the nation, and it’s stressed to the limit.”

Nevertheless, Diette and Thompson said that they anticipated off-ramps for universal masking in the near future, even without state intervention. If the Virginia Department of Health downgrades the community transmission level from red to yellow or green, Diette and Thompson said their districts would re-evaluate their mandates.

But until the Omicron wave subsides, Diette and Thompson said, their districts won’t voluntarily do away with mask requirements.

“Until community transmission rates start to fall, it’s very difficult to justify changing anything at this point,” Thompson said.