By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]extimes.com
Alexandria City Public Schools and six other Virginia school districts filed a joint lawsuit on Monday opposing Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) executive order which effectively made mask-wearing optional in public schools.
Alexandria joined school boards in Arlington County; Fairfax County; Hampton; Falls Church; Richmond and Prince William County, which together represent more than 350,000 students. According to a joint statement, the school boards filed the lawsuit in order not “out of choice, but out of necessity” to defend “the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff.”
“With COVID-19 transmission rates high, our hospitals at crisis level, and the continued recommendation of health experts to retain universal mask-wearing for the time being, this is simply not the time to remove this critical component of layered health and safety mitigation strategies,” the joint statement reads. “School divisions need to continue to preserve their authority to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable, who need these mitigation measures perhaps more than anyone to be able to continue to access in-person instruction.”
The suit challenges the constitutionality of Youngkin’s executive order. At the core of the lawsuit is whether school boards have exclusive power over supervision of schools granted by the Virginia constitution or whether an executive order can override that authority.
It also goes on to question whether Youngkin can legally reverse a lawfully-adopted statute without legislative action by the General Assembly. Specifically, the joint statement references Virginia Senate Bill 1303, which was adopted in March 2021 and requires that school districts maintain five days of in-person education by following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health and safety requirements to the greatest extent possible.
“Without today’s action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position – faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law,” the statement reads. “Today’s action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.”
School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said that ACPS’ decision to join the lawsuit comes from a desire to prioritize the health of students and staff.
“The Alexandria City School Board is joining other Virginia school divisions to protect our authority to make the decisions and enact the policies to preserve the safety and well-being of our students, staff and families,” Alderton said in a statement. “Universal masking is one of the critical COVID-19 mitigation measures that help safeguard each individual in our schools, as well as the collective health of our community.”
Mayor Justin Wilson expressed support for the board’s joint lawsuit.
“I stand with our ACPS School Board and our region’s elected School Boards as they work to protect the wellness of students, faculty and support staff, and ensure that we keep our students in school, safe and learning,” Wilson wrote on Twitter.
Youngkin’s Executive Order Number Two, which he signed on Jan. 15, states that, “Recent government orders requiring virtually every child in Virginia wear masks virtually every moment they are in school have proven ineffective and impractical.”
In the order, Youngkin goes on to state that the previous government orders do not align with “rapidly changing scientific information” and that an August 2021 order of the state health commissioner notes that correct mask use helps reduce transmission.
“As parents and educators have observed, many children wear masks incorrectly, providing little or no health benefit. The masks worn by children are often ineffective because they are made from cloth material, and they are often not clean, resulting in the collection of impurities, including bacteria and parasites,” the executive order reads. “Additionally, wearing masks for prolonged periods of time, such as for an entire school day, decreases their effectiveness.”
“In light of the variety of circumstances confronted by students in the commonwealth, parents should have the ability to decide whether their child should wear masks during the school day. This approach is consistent with the broad rights of parents,” order concludes.
Youngkin addressed the lawsuit in an interview on Monday with conservative radio host John Fredericks, stating that parents “have a fundamental right in Virginia to make decisions with regard to their kids’ education, their upbringing, and their care.”
“[The school jurisdictions in the lawsuit] aren’t recognizing the rights of parents today. And oh, by the way, they haven’t been recognizing the rights of parents all along. So I’m not surprised to hear these reactions from school boards that have consistently prioritized bureaucrats and politicians over the rights of parents,” Youngkin said.
Current state law requires that each school district “provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”