Virginia school districts challenge governor's order lifting mask mandates

GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin's executive order went into effect Monday.

January 24, 2022, 3:12 PM

Seven large Virginia school districts on Monday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Glenn Youngkin's executive order allowing parents to opt out of a statewide mask requirement to protect children from COVID-19.

Removing the requirements at schools was one of Youngkin's first actions after taking office last week. It is one way the new Republican governor is fulfilling his campaign promise to give parents what he said would be more power over their children's education.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs executive orders in the Governors conference room at the Capitol on Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber/AP

The school boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County filed the joint lawsuit challenging the order set to take effect Monday.

"It is imperative that decisions about education and school safety are made locally in order to champion the best interests of our students and community," Fairfax County wrote in a message to parents, saying the district's mask mandate will stay in effect for now.

The districts are challenging whether an executive order can override a school board's authority over public schools in the community and whether an executive order can reverse a statute calling for local school boards to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health requirements.

A child wears a mask while using a computer from a socially-distanced desk during an in-person hybrid learning day at the Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria, Va., March 2, 2021.
Tom Brenner/Reuters, FILE

"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," Fairfax County School District's press release said. "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."

While the legal challenges are playing out, Youngkin tweeted over the weekend encouraging families to follow the rules in place in the schools.

"While the legal process continues on the parental opt out of mask mandates for their children in schools, I urge everyone to love your neighbor, to listen to school principals, and to trust the legal process," Youngkin said in a tweet.

The seven school districts' lawsuit is not the first legal challenge against Youngkin's executive order. Last week, 13 parents from the Chesapeake City Public Schools filed a lawsuit in the Virginia Supreme Court.

Students at Colin L. Powell Elementary School read aloud letters they wrote to the family of Colin Powell with their condolences after news of his passing due to COVID-19 complications was announced, on Oct. 19, 2021 in Centreville, Va.
Kenny Holston/Getty Images, FILE

That lawsuit was filed against Virginia Acting State Health Commissioner Colin Greene, Virginia Acting Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, the Chesapeake School Board and Chesapeake City Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton, in addition to the governor.

"We are disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents' rights," Youngkin's spokesperson Macaulay Porter told ABC News. "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."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Jan. 24, 2022.
Andrew Harnik/AP

White House press secretary Jen Psaki weighed in on the dispute over wearing masks in Virginia schools on Monday during the White House press briefing.

Fox News Channel White House Correspondent Peter Doocy asked Psaki about Youngkin's executive order.

"Who does the president think knows best for students: school board members or parents?" Doocy asked.

"The president believes that public health officials have the best guidance on what we can all do to protect ourselves, including teachers, administrators and students," Psaki said. "It's always been up to local school districts to determine how they're going to approach, what implementation measures they're going to put in place."