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Local school districts to continue requiring masks in spite of Youngkin order

Public schools in Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle and Nelson will continue to require students and staff to wear masks in the wake of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order seeking to remove the requirement.

Both school districts issued news releases Monday, clarifying that the decision to continue to require masks is based on Virginia state law as well as federal government orders requiring masks on buses. Both school districts cited safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as reasoning for opposing the executive order, which is expected to go into effect on Jan. 24.

“Especially at this moment during the omicron-variant surge, we reaffirm our commitment to masking and other mitigation strategies,” wrote Royal A. Gurley, Jr. and Lisa Larson-Torres, the Charlottesville superintendent and School Board chairwoman. “Following the recommendations of the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health has allowed us to keep in-school transmission to a minimum.”

A statement issued by the county schools spoke to the same need for safety, citing a local surge in cases.

“According to the latest information from the Blue Ridge Health District, the level of community transmission of the COVID-19 virus in Albemarle County is in the health district’s highest risk category,” the county schools’ release reads. “The most current data from the [CDC] reports that daily infections in Albemarle County have more than quadrupled in recent weeks, and the percentage of positive test results has increased from less than 4% to nearly 30%.”

Nelson County Public Schools also issued a similar statement, affirming a dedication to the safety of its staff and students as basis for continuing to require masks.

The school districts all cite a state law passed by the General Assembly in 2021, which remains in effect until August. With the General Assembly now entering the second week of its 2022 session it remains to be seen whether any legislation seeking to extend or overturn the mask requirement will gain traction.

However, not all of the Central Virginia school districts seek to oppose Youngkin’s executive order.

In a Sunday letter, Louisa County Public Schools Superintendent Doug Straley wrote that the school will comply with the executive order starting Jan. 24 and will, at that point, allow parents to choose whether their child wears a mask.

“As mentioned, this is an Executive Order that all school divisions are mandated to follow, and there are still more specific directions to come from the Virginia Department of Education,” Straley wrote. “Once we have those specific directions in hand, we’ll update our policies as needed and provide you with an immediate update.”

Charlottesville and Albemarle County join a growing number of school districts opposing Youngkin’s executive order. Arlington County Public Schools were among the first to respond to the executive order, tweeting out a news release Saturday citing a need to “make decisions that prioritize the health, safety and wellbeing of our students and staff, following the guidance of local and national health professionals.”

The new governor took little time to respond and told a WTOP reporter Sunday that he would use state resources to force the school systems to comply.

“We wrote the order specifically to give all the school systems, basically, eight days to get ready— to listen to parents,” Youngkin said. “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 and will do to ensure parents’ rights are protected.”

“Parents’ rights” were a major facet of Youngkin’s campaign, which saw the Republican lean into the nationwide controversy over “critical race theory” — a concept which has widely differing definitions, depending on the source, but generally involves highlighting the way the U.S. government has historically oppressed people of color.

Though no legal challenges have yet been filed, University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that it is likely that soon a local school system or a parent is likely to go to court and argue that the state law that says Virginia must follow CDC guidelines to the “maximum extent practicable” supersedes the new governor’s executive order.


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