Masks are staying on at most Northern Virginia public schools, at least for now.
Officials from Prince William County Schools and Manassas City Public Schools announced Monday that their universal masking policies remain in place despite Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Saturday executive order.
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On his first day in office, Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order requiring school districts to offer parental choice in masking at school. What’s your take?
Prince William schools said in a note to the school community that they are sticking with the previous mask policy requiring them for all students and staff inside school buildings and rejecting Youngkin’s new order promising parental choice in the matter. Manassas schools did the same.
“PWCS COVID-19 mitigation measures remain unchanged at this time, including mask requirements for students, staff, and visitors,” Superintendent LaTanya McDade said in a message to families Monday. “We are aware that over the weekend Governor Glenn Youngkin announced a series of executive orders, including future modification to guidance on masks in schools. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) will also be issuing revised guidance. PWCS is evaluating both the order and anticipated VDOE guidance, along with local, state, and national legal requirements.”
On Saturday, shortly after taking office, Youngkin signed 11 executive actions, the second of which promised parents the choice to send their child to public school without a mask and without any reason.
“The parents of any child enrolled in an elementary or secondary school or a school board early childcare and educational program may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program,” the order, which is set to take effect Jan. 24, reads.
But over the weekend, a number of school divisions announced that they were rejecting the order.
Loudoun County Public Schools announced Monday that, since the order takes effect on Jan. 24, masks will be required at LCPS when school opens on Tuesday, January 18, 2022 and for the remainder of the week. The announcement said the division will review the updated guidance from the Governor’s Office, the Virginia Department of Education, and the Virginia Department of Health and will provide new information to LCPS families and staff this Wednesday.
Fauquier County schools say they will continue the mask mandate for now as the governor’s order does not take effect until Jan. 24.
State law SB1303, signed into law last year, mandates that school divisions make in-person instruction available and that they do so “in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies … to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The CDC still recommends universal masking inside of public schools, putting the law passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, at odds with the new governor’s order.
“As students return to school this week, please not that Manassas City Public Schools will continue universal masking for all students, staff, and visitors in alignment with [CDC] guidance,” a message from the Manassas school board to parents on Monday reads, adding that the division is aware of Youngkin’s order. “To continue in-person instruction, as outlined in Senate Bill 1303, adhering to our mitigation strategies, especially universal masking, keeps our schools open and safe places for students to learn.”
At the same time, the commonwealth and local school divisions are dealing with their highest case counts since the pandemic began. On Friday, Prince William schools reported a record number of students either isolating with COVID or quarantining due to close contact for the school year, at 1,476 and 2,217 students, respectively. When schools let out for what would become an extended winter break, 283 students were isolating with COVID, though the division’s numbers are imperfect and are dependent on when and how cases are reported.
In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Youngkin said his administration was “going to stand up for parents,” and said that under Virginia law, parents had a “fundamental right to make decisions for their children’s upbringing, their education and their care.”
“We are going to use all the authority that I have to consider all options to protect that right,” Youngkin said.
One complicating factor for school divisions is the way in which removing mask mandates could force even more students into quarantine. Current quarantine policy for Prince William schools, for example, mandates that students within 6 feet of an unmasked, COVID-positive student will have to go into the division’s quarantine procedure. But as long as students are masked, they can be even closer and not have to quarantine. Of course, divisions can adjust quarantine policy, as Prince William’s is considering to shorten the time away to better align with new CDC guidance.
Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at [email protected]