RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Richmond School Board is among seven Virginia school boards suing to block Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order giving parents the option to send their children into the classroom without a mask.
The lawsuit was filed in Arlington Circuit Court on Monday, the day Youngkin’s order went into effect, and is asking the court for an immediate injunction to stop the order. The suit argues the governor’s directive goes against the Virginia Constitution and a state law passed last year requiring school districts to offer five days of in-person learning.
The seven school boards that filed the suit include Richmond, Alexandria City, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County. The seven school districts serve over 350,000 students across the commonwealth.
“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. Today’s action is not politically motivated,” the school boards said in a joint statement.
The school boards question the legality behind Youngkin’s order in the lawsuit, focusing on a provision in the state Constitution that says “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board” and a law that calls on school boards to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to the maximum extent practicable.”
The CDC recommends universal indoor mask wearing for students ages 2 and older and all other people who enter a K-12 school.
“These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students. This lawsuit is not brought out of choice, but out of necessity,” the school boards continued.
In a statement Monday, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said the administration is “disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents’ rights. The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education and care, as the legal process plays out.”
On Sunday, the Richmond School Board held an emergency meeting and voted to take legal action over Youngkin’s order allowing parents to opt-out of its mask mandate. Jason Kamras, the district’s superintendent, went to social media after Youngkin signed his executive order to assert that Richmond schools would maintain its mask mandate.
The lawsuit filed Monday is not the only legal challenge the Youngkin administration is facing over the governor’s order. A group of 13 Chesapeake parents filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Virginia seeking an injunction to Youngkin’s order.
In the petition, the parents ask the justices to rule that Youngkin’s order is unenforceable and to grant their request to stop the order before it went into effect. The high court did not take any action before the order kicked in on Monday.
“When you’re pressing forward with an agenda that cuts across what’s been happening in Virginia, where we have not been looking after parents’ rights, we have not been standing up for our kids, then you know what, we’re going to have some pushback,” Youngkin told Richmond radio station WRVA on Monday morning.
“We’re gonna have to be patient. We’ll see how long this takes but I’ve asked parents consistently, please first love one another, this is not a moment for all of us to forget that we are all in the same boat and love one another.”
Youngkin said on WRVA that his executive order calls on local school districts with mask mandates to provide an opt-out option to parents, accusing critics of conflating the order as a position on the effectiveness of masks.
“Listen to a principal today. And I know that there are some school systems that are doing things that are inconsistent with respecting the rights of parents,” Youngkin added. “Let’s respect it right now and let this legal process play out.”
On Jan. 21, Youngkin shared new state guidelines developed by the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education on how public and private schools in Virginia should approach COVID-19.
The guidance suggests that parents consult with their medical providers for any questions “about whether or not their child should mask and for how long.” The guidelines also state that there are benefits and costs to mask-wearing in schools.
“The benefits may include reduced transmission of the virus, but with limitations,” the guidance says. “Masks made of plain cloth, masks that are soiled or poorly fitting, and masks that are not worn properly provide reduced or no benefit; mask-wearing may cause discomfort, skin irritation, anxiety, and otherwise impact a child’s emotional state.”
The guidelines refer to the CDC’s recommendation for the use of N95 or KN95 masks, claiming these masks “are very tight and uncomfortable, and may be poorly tolerated by children.”