‘This is the law of the land’: Youngkin signs bill ending Virginia’s school mask mandates

Fast-tracked bill sets March 1 deadline for schools to comply

By: - February 16, 2022 4:24 pm

Surrounded by children on the steps of the Capitol, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed legislation earlier this month ending school mask mandates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After signing a fast-tracked law ending school mask mandates in Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Wednesday he hopes there will be no more legal challenges over the issue as school divisions work to comply with a March 1 deadline to make masks optional.

“My strong hope is that this will put everything to bed,” Youngkin told reporters after signing the bill on the steps of the Capitol amid a throng of children and supporters. “And that we’ll recognize that we now have a law of the land…  that in fact protects the rights of parents to make this decision.”

Youngkin emphasized the bill he signed came from the state Senate, meaning it couldn’t have passed without a handful of Democrats on board. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who led the anti-mandate effort in the Senate, attended Wednesday’s ceremony but said he declined an offer to speak.

Most Democrats strongly opposed the bill, and the Democratic Party of Virginia denounced the move despite some of its own members helping to see it through.

“At a time when our school divisions continue to face the ongoing effects of this pandemic and uncertainty about what lies ahead, we need to empower our local school boards to remain nimble and meet the ever-changing needs of our schools and students,” said DPVA Chairwoman Susan Swecker. “Instead, Governor Youngkin has chosen to strip them of their constitutional responsibilities and tie their hands.”

The signing ceremony, preceded by a lengthy Youngkin appearance on Fox News, marked the first major legislative win for the new governor, effectively overriding ongoing legal battles over his executive order that also took aim at school mask mandates. Just a few weeks ago, seven school divisions won a court injunction temporarily suspending that order. 

Critics, including the state’s major education groups, maintain the anti-mandate law infringes on the constitutional authority of local school boards who now cannot make masks mandatory. But the General Assembly-approved law carries more legal weight than Youngkin acting alone under his executive powers.

An amendment Youngkin made to the bill clarifies that he will retain his ability to reinstate school masking in a future public health emergency. He said he doesn’t think he’ll need to take that step.

“We’ve seen omicron actually decline substantially,” Youngkin said. “Omicron is far less severe. And this is the natural progression of this pandemic.”

Asked what he would say to parents who now fear for their children’s safety due to the lack of mask mandates, Youngkin said he encourages those parents to continue to mask their own children.

“It’s really important that we respect each other’s decisions,” he said.

Though there was some discussion among lawmakers over putting a sunset clause on the bill, effectively giving it an expiration date when the heated debate over masks is no longer an issue, Youngkin said “this is the law of the land and it will stay the law of the land.”

“There isn’t a moment where the rights of parents sunset,” he said.

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver contributed to this story.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.