RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Virginia judge has temporarily blocked Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s mask-optional order for students in schools, siding with seven school boards that sued over the policy that allowed parents to decide whether to send their children to class without a face covering.
School boards across the commonwealth held votes on their district’s mask policies in the wake of Youngkin’s Executive Order 2, with some lifting mandates and others maintaining the rules they adopted.
The temporary restraining order issued Friday does not reverse those votes but instead prevents parents from sending their children to school without a mask despite a school district’s policy.
Richmond’s School Board joined the boards in Alexandria City, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County in filing the lawsuit. The school boards filed the lawsuit in Arlington Circuit Court on Jan. 24, the day Youngkin’s order went into effect.
The school districts, which collectively serve over 350,000 students across the commonwealth, asked the court for an immediate injunction to halt the order and restore “the status quo for the 2021-22 school year, as it existed before EO2.”
“Having addressed all aspects of whether a temporary restraining order should issue, the Court concludes that the School Boards’ Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order with regard to optional masking of children should be granted,” Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo wrote in the ruling.
Youngkin’s spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the state intends to appeal the decision, called the ruling “just the first step in the judicial process.”
“The governor will never stop fighting for parents’ ability to choose what is best for their children. The governor often said that this is not a pro-mask or anti-mask debate. It’s about parents knowing what’s best for their child’s health, and opting-out should there be a mask mandate,” Porter said in a statement. “More voices, including from the scientific and medical community, call into question the efficacy behind a universal mask mandate for children.”
The school boards questioned 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.”
The lawsuit also cited a state law passed last year, Senate Bill 1303, requiring districts to offer five days of in-person learning and to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to the maximum extent practicable.“
The CDC currently recommends universal indoor mask wearing for students ages 2 and older and all other people who enter a K-12 school.
“By empowering parents with an opt-out option for face masks, Governor Youngkin is simply using the same executive powers used by Governor Northam to alter our response to the same pandemic. We are disappointed that the trial court did not fully agree with our interpretation of the law and we are preparing to appeal today’s ruling,” a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jason Miyares, Victoria LaCivita, said in a statement.
In her ruling, Judge DiMatteo wrote that the single issue before the court was if Youngkin could use his emergency powers to “override the decision of local school boards delegated to them under SB 1303.”
“On this pivotal point, the Court concludes that the Governor cannot,” the judge wrote.
The case in Arlington Circuit Court is not the only legal challenge to Youngkin’s mask order. A group of 13 Chesapeake parents filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Virginia asking the justices to rule that the order is unenforceable and grant an immediate injunction, but the court did not take any action before the order kicked in.
Attorney Miyares asked the high court to dismiss the complaint, filing a brief arguing that state law allows parents to make the ultimate decision for their child. The law cited by Miyares states “a parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child.”
This story is developing. Check back for updates.