Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, reclines on the floor of the Senate. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
In a surprise move, an education bill was amended on the floor of the Democratic-led Virginia Senate Tuesday to include a provision allowing families to opt out of mask rules in their local schools, legislation senators from both parties said is expected to win final passage Wednesday.
The amendment was proposed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who recently described school mask mandates as an “unscientific and inhumane” in a letter urging Fairfax County Public Schools to end the policy soon as possible.
Though Petersen said his proposal arose on its own, it closely mirrors Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order meant to allow parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates.
In what appeared to be a sharp reversal of Democratic support for those mandates, 10 Democrats joined the Senate’s 19 Republicans to accept the amendment on a 29-9 vote.
Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Petersen said his goal is to bring an end to school mask mandates as soon as possible.
“All the other states are moving in this direction,” Petersen said, noting that blue states recently announced plans to lift their statewide mask mandates. “There’s no reason for Virginia to be left behind.”
The number of COVID-19 cases reported in Virginia has been dropping steadily since mid-January, and the politics surrounding mitigation measures appear to be shifting just as fast.
Youngkin applauded the Senate’s move in a statement released shortly after the vote.
“In the last week, we have seen Democrat-led states like Oregon, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware move away from universal mask mandates in schools,” Younkgin said, adding he’s prepared to sign the bill. “I am pleased that there is bipartisan support for doing the same in Virginia.”
Democrats note those states are phasing out school masking in a more orderly fashion by setting clear timelines and respecting local school systems’ authority to make their own decisions.
In a floor speech Tuesday, House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said that in other states moving away from school mask mandates, “the localities will still have the final decision.” But later in the same afternoon, nearly half of the Senate’s Democrats voted to advance legislation that largely overrides local control.
Immediately upon taking office in mid-January, in the thick of the omicron surge, Youngkin issued a controversial executive order to allow parents to opt out of mask mandates, even if local schools required masking. Afterward, the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said it continue to recommend children wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
Youngkin’s order took aim at mandates as a matter of parental rights, suggesting parents could ignore local rules even though it was unclear he had the authority to override school board decisions. That uncertainty has spawned at least four lawsuits, with two court rulings so far seeming to uphold local school board’s power to keep or drop mask mandates as they see fit.
If passed, the amended Senate bill could render those proceedings moot, with school boards unable to make masks mandatory for all students regardless of how courts rule on the legality of Youngkin’s order.
“I think that the evidence is evolving so quickly that this is the right thing to do,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, who worked with Petersen last year on a similar legislative effort to force schools to reopen for in-person learning. Dunnavant was the sponsor of the bill Petersen amended. Prior to his addition, the legislation simply required schools to continue providing in-person instruction, replacing an earleir school reopening law set to expire in August.
Though the legal battles over school masking are ongoing, Petersen suggested the amended bill could take effect in a matter of weeks if an emergency clause is added as it makes its way through the House of Delegates and onto Youngkin’s desk. He said he’s willing to talk with the governor and school leaders about exactly what the timing should look like.
“But it’s not going to be long folks,” Petersen said. “’Cause this train is leaving the station.”
Despite the amendment seeming to go hand-in-hand with Youngkin’s efforts, Petersen said he was not acting at the direction of the governor.
“I’ve been fighting this battle for a year and a half now,” Petersen said, referring to his efforts in the 2021 session on school reopening. “I didn’t even know who Glenn Youngkin was. And no disrespect to him, but this was a legislative idea I had coming down here.”
A spokeswoman for Fairfax schools, the largest school system in the state, declined to comment on Petersen’s letter urging an end to school masking. She instead pointed to the school system’s statement from last week, when an Arlington County judge upheld local school boards’ authority to retain mask mandates.
“We are working with health experts to determine a safe and effective plan to scale back when it is appropriate to do so,” the Fairfax statement said. “FCPS will continue, as it has since this pandemic began, to prioritize the health and safety of all students and staff.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, one of the nine Democrats who voted against Petersen’s amendment Tuesday, said she opposed it for the same reason she opposed Youngkin’s order: to preserve local control. But some in the General Assembly, she said, think “they know best.”
“I think we should let our local school divisions do what they think best based on what their circumstances are,” McClellan said.
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