- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2022

Seven Virginia school boards sued Monday to block Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s order creating a parental opt-out on mask mandates, challenging the Republican on a key priority of his new administration.

The lawsuit filed in Arlington County Court alleges that Executive Order 2 — signed by Mr. Youngkin on Jan. 15, his first day in office — violates Virginia’s Constitution, arguing that it counters pandemic-related legislation passed last year and overrides school board authority.

“Without today’s action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position — faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law,” the districts said in a joint statement. “Today’s action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.”

The seven school districts are Alexandria, Arlington County, Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Hampton and Prince William County, which represent a total of about 350,000 students.

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They cited COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, which have begun to taper off nationally after soaring in late December and early January, saying the legal action was needed to keep schools “open and safe.”

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter tied the issue to that of parental rights, a cornerstone of Mr. Youngkin‘s gubernatorial campaign.

“We are disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents’ rights,” Mr. Porter said in a statement Monday. “The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education and care, as the legal process plays out.”

Mr. Youngkin said Friday that his order is “not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents” by allowing them to opt out of mask mandates at private and public schools.

The schools’ filing is separate from a lawsuit filed Jan. 19 by Chesapeake Public Schools parents challenging the governor’s executive order on masks in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Mr. Youngkin issued updated guidelines Friday on his mask order, which were developed by the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education.

“I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

His critics have cited Senate Bill 1303, which holds that schools must adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mitigation guidelines for COVID-19 to the “maximum extent practicable.” The CDC’s latest guidance recommends universal indoor masking regardless of vaccination status in schools.

Several school districts, including Fairfax, said last week that they would continue to require masks despite the governor’s order. Fairfax is the state’s largest school district by enrollment, with more than 178,000 students.

“We also believe there will be a time, hopefully soon, when we will be able to safely roll back many of the protection measures we have had in place since the start of the pandemic,” Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a statement Monday. “To do so prematurely puts students at risk of both illness and missing critical time in the classroom.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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