RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Friday he’s confident his administration will win a court battle over his executive order allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates for their children, but he advised parents to “listen to their principal” until the Supreme Court of Virginia issues its ruling.
With Youngkin's order slated to go into effect Monday and no action yet from the court following a lawsuit filed earlier in the week, confusion continued to swirl Friday.
School districts across the state have offered a range of responses to Youngkin's order, with some planning to comply but many others in some of the state's most populous areas saying their mandates would remain in place next week. One district said it would have extra security Monday after a mother speaking against mask mandates made a perceived threat during a school board meeting.
In a statement, Youngkin said he was confident the Virginia Supreme Court would rule “in the favor of parents.”
“In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal, and trust the legal process,” he said.
Tuesday's legal challenge to the order — which Youngkin issued on his first day in office — was filed by a group of parents with children in Chesapeake Public Schools.
Youngkin has asked the court to dismiss the petition. A filing late Thursday from the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares cited a state law that says parents have a “fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care” of their children. Miyares also argued that Youngkin's order falls well within the broad authority given to the governor to address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
School districts in Virginia have required masks in part under a state law passed in 2021 that requires in-person instruction during the pandemic and for schools to adhere “to the maximum extent practicable” to mitigation guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC currently recommends masking by anyone 2 or older, regardless of their vaccination status.
Since Youngkin issued his executive order on Jan. 15, he has faced pushback from some school districts, Democratic lawmakers and the Chesapeake parents who filed suit.
In a legal brief filed with the Supreme Court of Virginia Friday, the Chesapeake parents argue that Youngkin’s order “undermines the safety provisions and intent” of the 2021 law.
The parents also argue that if Youngkin is allowed to override the state law, “then there appears to be no limit to his ability to allow citizens to ignore COVID-19 safety protocols in all situations and locations across the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
“Because (the executive order) is an abuse of authority that threatens public safety and may be expanded to create more threats, the relief requested in the Petition is necessary and appropriate,” the brief states.
The court had taken no action by 6 p.m. Friday evening.
Youngkin’s order said the parents of any child in elementary or secondary schools or a school-based early childcare or educational program “may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate.”
One Virginia woman speaking during a Page County Public Schools meeting Thursday told the board her children would not be wearing a mask Monday, news outlets reported, before adding: “And I will bring every single gun, loaded and ready." Authorities said they were investigating, and the school district said it would be increasing the police presence Friday and Monday.
Youngkin, who is an advocate of vaccination efforts but campaigned against mask and vaccine mandates, recently said he would “use every resource within the governor’s authority” to ensure parents can choose whether their children wear masks.
His order did not specify how it would be enforced and Youngkin's administration has not responded to questions about enforcement since.
Late Friday, the governor's office issued updated guidelines for COVID-19 prevention in schools it said were developed by the departments of Health and Education.
Regarding masks, the guidance said parents should consult with their medical providers about whether or not their child should wear a mask and for how long one should be worn.
“In situations where a child is returning from isolation due to COVID, or was subject to a close contact exposure, the benefit of temporary masking is likely to outweigh the risks,” the guidance said.