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Local parents join in lawsuit over governor's mask order

A group of parents of students with disabilities, including two parents from Albemarle County, filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against Gov. Glenn Youngkin, alleging his executive order allowing masks to be optional for schoolchildren violates the Americans With Disabilities Act and other federal law.

This is the third lawsuit filed against Youngkin and state officials since he issued the executive order on Jan. 15, the day he was sworn in.

The children of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have illnesses like cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma, Down syndrome, lung conditions, and weakened immune systems. Because of that, the parents allege that Youngkin, Attorney General Jason Miyares and other officials are excluding their children from access to a public education.

“The Executive Order shows a reckless disregard for students with disabilities across Virginia,” said Kaitlin Banner, the deputy legal director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee said in a news release. “The Order prevents schools from taking reasonable steps to make sure their students can go to school and enjoy the same educational experiences as their friends.”

The lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit are two Albemarle parents, Christopher Seaman and Elizabeth Allison Lyons, who have a third-grader at Brownsville Elementary, identified as C.S. The boy has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, according to the filing. Treatments for leukemia, including a bone marrow transplant, have left him immunocompromised. Because of his disability, he’s at risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

They joined 11 other families in challenging the order.

“If there is no longer a mask mandate in Albemarle County School District, C.S.’s parents will have to choose between sending C.S. and his younger brother to school, which puts C.S.’s health and safety at heightened risk, or withdrawing them from school and risking their educational progress,” attorneys wrote in the complaint.

The Albemarle County School Board has elected to keep its mask mandate in place, citing state law that requires the division to offer in-person instruction in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

Lyons spoke at a recent Albemarle School Board meeting in support of that stance along with several other parents.

“I really want to express appreciation for how much Brownsville has done for him to keep him safe over the past three years and keep his brother safe in order to not transmit COVID to him prior to going through his bone marrow transplant,” she said at the Jan. 27 meeting. “… If we change our policies without thinking about it ahead of time, we could actually provide inequitable care to our students and shortchange them.”

The first lawsuit against Youngkin’s mask order was filed in the Supreme Court of Virginia three days after he was sworn in. A group of Chesapeake parents allege Youngkin doesn’t have the power to suspend a 2021 state law that requires schools to adhere to federal COVID-19 mitigation guidance as closely as possible; that guidance currently recommends masking.

And then a week ago, seven school boards, including Richmond, filed a lawsuit against Youngkin in Arlington County Circuit Court. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled for Wednesday, also arguing that the state Constitution gives local school boards—not the governor—the power to determine school safety rules.

Youngkin and Miyares assert that a different state law gives parents rights to make decisions about their children’s education and health.

The order divided school divisions across the state. Some opted to make masks for children optional, as the governor’s order directs. Others opted to keep their rules requiring masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Chesterfield County’s school board, for example, voted last week to make masks optional, prompting some parents to keep their children home and some teachers to call in sick. In the capital region, masks are also now optional in Hanover County schools, but required in Richmond and Henrico schools.

Daily Progress reporter Katherine Knott contributed to this report.


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