Surgical mask hanging inside school on locker. School re-openings were a controversial part of the Coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 pandemic during 2020 and 2021. (Getty Images)
Who will benefit from the appeal of a federal court ruling – sought by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Attorney General Jason Miyares and other administration officials – that would challenge whether 12 students with serious health problems can legally ask classmates and teachers to continue to wear masks?
Certainly not the overwhelmingly majority of public school students in Virginia. Youngkin’s first-day-in-office executive order giving parents the option to mask their children, and a subsequent bill passed by the General Assembly effective March 1 doing the same thing, mean the subject is basically moot.
Those moves happened even as the pandemic continues. (The death toll in America from COVID-19 is more than 991,000, though the recent trend is positive. More than 20,200 Virginians have died since early 2020.)
The 12 children with a variety of serious illnesses don’t benefit from the administration’s posturing, either. They’re at a greater risk of catching COVID-19 – and possibly dying. These young people have cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma and more. The issue is far from an intellectual one for them and their parents.
They gain nothing from the Youngkin administration’s harsh publicity stunt.
No, this is all about scoring political points and making hay for the next election. Republicans Youngkin, Miyares and others in the administration seek total domination of the mask-optional initiatives. Even though they essentially have it.
Their message to the small handful of families trying to get their youngsters back in school safely? Pfft.
U.S. District Judge Norman Moon ruled in late March that the specific 12 students could ask their schools to mandate masking. The families, with the help of the Virginia ACLU and other groups, said the mask-optional policy effectively kept their children out of school. That’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they contend.
But Moon also took pains to note the executive order and state law remain in effect. As the Associated Press reported, families of other disabled children would have to make their own pleas for relief.
“This is not a class action,” Moon wrote, “and the 12 plaintiffs in this case have no legal right to ask the Court to deviate from that state law in any schools in Virginia (much less school districts) their children do not attend, or indeed even those areas of their schools in which plaintiffs’ children do not frequent.”
That means the Youngkin administration and Miyares got practically everything they wanted. Nor do the school divisions have to grant the families’ requests for mandatory masking.
I wondered why Miyares appealed. His spokeswoman, Victoria LaCivita, declined to comment on “active litigation.” Nor did the attorney general’s website have any news on the issue.
When I requested Youngkin’s reasoning for the appeal, his spokeswoman referred me to Miyares’ office.
Kaitlin Banner is deputy legal director for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, one of the groups that assisted the 12 families of children with serious illnesses. She told me several of the students are back in school since Judge Moon’s ruling. She said he looked properly at the ADA and determined “that students have the right to attend schools safely.”
One parent upset by the administration’s decision to appeal is Chris Seaman, who lives in Crozet and is the father of an 8-year-old boy fighting leukemia.
“It’s really a slap in the face, to be honest,” Seaman told me by phone this week. “We just want to be able to get our kids to go to school in a safe environment.”
Seaman’s son and a younger sibling have attended Brownsville Elementary in Albemarle County. The third-grader has been learning remotely because he’s undergone chemotherapy, T-cell therapy and a bone marrow transplant over the years.
But his family wants him to return. They have a meeting scheduled this week with school administrators.
“I’m hopeful they’ll be willing to give us the accommodation” that his son’s classmates and instructors wear masks.
Here’s what Seaman and his wife have done since their older son was diagnosed with cancer more than three years ago: There have been weekly, then monthly, trips to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where the boy was in a clinical trial.
The journey is five hours one-way. They’ve made the trip dozens of times.
Though their child is now in remission, Seaman said, he’s still taking several medications.
“If he gets COVID, and he’s immunocompromised, he would be at higher risk for severe disease,” the father said.
Parents in the local community have been supportive of the family. People have told him they’ll continue to mask, Seaman said, “and we’re grateful for that.”
His view of the state officials appealing Judge Moon’s ruling? “It feels like they’re deliberately targeting our kids,” Seaman said.
Indeed. And for what?
Miyares, Youngkin & Co. should declare victory and drop the appeal. They’ve won their assault on mandatory masking.
What they don’t want is for some of the dozen children to die from COVID-19, possibly spread by a classmate or educator. They would then have to explain why they were so adamant about their legal – and political – agenda on masks in schools.
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