RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was facing a new legal challenge over his executive action that aimed to let parents opt out of school mask mandates as his order took effect Monday but was ignored by some districts.
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Youngkin issued the order as one of his first acts after being sworn in as governor Jan. 15, and confusion has swirled over the implications since then. Some districts have interpreted the order as being at odds with a state law that deals with COVID-19 mitigation in schools and have opted to keep pre-existing mask mandates in place for students.
On Monday, some students reporting to class ignored local mandates and went maskless. But there were no reports of major issues or violent confrontations.
With the order facing a legal challenge filed last week by a group of parents and another filed Monday morning by seven school boards, Youngkin urged patience and asked parents to listen to their children’s school principals for the time being.
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“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. … Let’s respect it right now and let this legal process play out,” he said in an interview with Richmond radio station WRVA.
Monday’s legal challenge was brought by seven school boards that filed a lawsuit in Arlington County Circuit Court seeking to block the executive order.
In addition to Fairfax, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, the school boards in Alexandria, Richmond, Hampton, Falls Church, Arlington County and Prince William County, joined the suit. Collectively, the jurisdictions represent more than 350,000 students.
The lawsuit argues the state constitution gives local school boards the authority to run their districts. It also cites a state law that requires school systems to follow federal health guidelines, which include recommendations for universal masking.
“At issue is whether locally-elected school boards will maintain the exclusive authority and responsibility conferred upon them by Article VIII, Section 7 of the Constitution of Virginia to supervise the public schools in their respective school divisions or whether the Governor can unilaterally infringe upon that authority through an executive order,” the lawsuit states.
Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said the administration was disappointed that the school boards were acting counter to 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,” she said in a statement.
Supporters of the executive order say the state law is not in conflict with Youngkin’s executive order because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends mask wearing and does not mandate it.
But Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Petarsky said the existing mask mandate has allowed the school system to maintain in-person learning throughout the school year.