The tension over school mask requirements reflects the way pandemic-related measures have become political focal points over the past two years, with Yongkin’s crackdown last fall in no small part frustrating parents with distance learning and taking over what they saw as a lack of control. teach their children.
But Youngkin’s executive action on mask-wearing in schools, which he signed off on on his first day in office on Saturday, comes in the middle of a recent spike in coronavirus cases – in part due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant – and during a public health crisis as The choices of individuals affect entire societies. His order states that “parents should have the ability to decide whether their children should wear masks throughout the school day,” thus trying to stop any mandates to use masks in public schools.
Yongkin’s executive actions, which include nine orders and two directives to date, provide the clearest indication that the Republican governor will mark a dramatic departure from a state that has been blue for years, including eight years of Democrats in the governor’s palace and two years of full democratic control in the state. They unleashed a firestorm of controversy and are about to become Youngkin’s first big test since he took the job.
Scott Brabrand, director of Fairfax County Public Schools, said in a letter to the school community.
“Universal mask use has proven effective in keeping COVID-19 transmission rates low in our schools and ensuring schools remain safe and open,” a statement from Arlington Public Schools said about its decision.
Yongkin, however, rejects this idea in his system.
“Many children wear masks incorrectly, providing little or no health benefit. Masks worn by children are often ineffective because they are made of cloth material, and are often unclean, which leads to the collection of impurities, including bacteria and parasites ,” he is writing.
The governor also noted the availability of vaccines for children ages 5 to 12, though he argues vigorously that vaccinations shouldn’t be mandatory either — something that split him from former Governor Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent, in 2021.
Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for the governor, reiterated his pledge, telling CNN Monday that Yongkin “will consider all options available and all tools available to him to ensure that parents make decisions about the raising, education and care of their children.”
In his State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Monday, Yongkin described the change of course on mask mandates as a “matter of individual freedom”.
‘Delegating the mask shouldn’t be a game of table tennis’
Like many Republicans across the country, Yongkin has routinely pledged to give parents more power in making decisions about the pandemic during his campaign. His path to victory presented the Republican Party with a potential roadmap on what issues to talk about in 2022, like education and parental rights, and which issues to handle, like the 2020 election and false claims by former President Donald Trump.
Yongkin’s focus on parental rights blossomed from McAuliffe’s gaffe. During a debate about which books should be taught in schools, the Democrat said lightly, “I don’t think parents should tell schools what they should teach,” a line Yongkin quickly formatted in an advertisement and used as a rallying cry for the rest of the race.
The focus quickly grew beyond books in schools, and included questions about the coronavirus, questions about how to tackle race in the classroom and issues related to transgender students. All of this was aimed at slashing McAuliffe’s support with swing voters in key areas like vote-rich Northern Virginia and around Richmond.
However, it is now officials in many of those same areas who are breaking Yongkin’s orders, something that Monica Hutchinson, mother of a 14- and 15-year-old in Henrico County, celebrates.
“As adults, we should lead by example. Mask delegation should not be a game of political ping-pong,” Hutchinson said, adding that mask delegations to young people are essential to maintaining personal learning.
Yongkin isn’t the first Republican governor to face pushback in schools and in masks. Florida’s legal inconsistency over Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order “protecting parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks” may be indicative of what awaits Yongkin.
DeSantis scored a political victory last November when the Republican-controlled state legislature approved a ban on school mask mandates, which DeSantis signed into law. While Yongkin has a Republican majority in Virginia’s House of Delegates, Democrats still control the Senate.
Even if the current increase in Omicron declines, the conversation about how much control parents should have in day-to-day decision-making in schools is likely to remain a political problem in the coming years.
US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said after Yongkin’s victory that the issue will play a prominent role in the 2022 midterm elections as Republicans will make it part of the party’s cause to win back a majority from Democrats.
This story has been updated with additional context.