RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — With bipartisan support, the Virginia Senate approved an amendment to a bill giving parents the ability to choose whether their children wear masks in schools without providing an excuse and regardless of rules adopted by local school boards.
On Tuesday, Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen (Fairfax City) introduced a floor amendment to a bill from Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant that would require school boards to permanently offer in-person instruction.
Sen. Petersen’s floor amendment states any parent with a child enrolled in a public school or any school-based early childhood care program could elect to send their child to the classroom without a mask “notwithstanding any other provision of law or any regulation, rule, or policy implemented by a school board, school division, school official, or other state or local authority.”
The language was adopted on a 29-9 vote, a bipartisan outcome that could give Gov. Glenn Youngkin a legislative solution to legal challenges that have temporarily blocked his mask-optional executive order in schools.
“I’m not concerned with the executive order. This is through the legislature,” Petersen said in an interview after the vote. “We had a bipartisan coalition. We’ve talked about this for almost a month now and this was the solution that we chose.”
If passed, the legislation would supersede Sen. Dunnavant’s bill that passed last year mandating school boards to offer five days of in-person learning and follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to the maximum extent practicable.“
The law, which Dunnavant argued did not compel schools to follow all of the CDC’s recommendations, has been cited in multiple legal challenges to Youngkin’s order. The governor lauded the approval of the floor amendment on Tuesday.
“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. I am pleased that there is bipartisan support for doing the same in Virginia,” Youngkin said in a statement. “This shows that when we work across the aisle, we put Virginians first. I look forward to signing this bill when it comes to my desk.”
While the amendment to the bill was approved, the legislation from Dunnavant must still be voted on by the full Senate. However, with Petersen’s backing and other Democrats voting in favor of the amendment, the measure should pass the chamber and the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
Nine Democrats in the Virginia Senate voted against the amendment. In interviews, some said the decision should be left to localities and expressed concern for children who have yet to get clearance for the COVID-19 vaccine. Two other Democrats did not vote.
“I wonder what this vote says to the parent of a four-year-old who just has become eligible for vaccine but they haven’t been able to get it yet and having people in that building without masks puts that student at risk,” state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said after the vote. “We can’t get back to normal until COVID is under control and manageable and we need to leave it to the local governments.”
Petersen said he didn’t work with the Youngkin administration on the amendment. If the governor successfully adds an emergency clause to the bill, he said school mask mandates could be lifted as soon as the bill is signed into law in a potentially a matter of weeks.
“My goal is to do it as soon as possible and I’m willing to talk with the governor. I’m willing to talk with local school boards…but it’s not going to be long, folks, because this train is leaving the station,” Petersen said.
A Youngkin spokesperson told 8News the governor could put an emergency clause on the bill but did not say whether he was considering such a move. If passed without an emergency clause, the law would go into effect in July.
This story is developing. Check back for updates.