On March 1, wearing masks in public schools officially became optional across Virginia. Additionally, public schools across the state fully pivoted to in-person instruction, as outlined in Senate Bill 739 that Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) signed into law.
Weeks prior, several county governments lifted in-school mask mandates after Governor Glen Youngkin (R) issued Executive Order 2, which banned Virginia schools from imposing mask mandates. That move intensified ongoing efforts among parents, educators and advocates to protect immunocompromised children.
Not long after Youngkin issued Executive Order 2, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU-VA) filed a lawsuit on the behalf of a dozen children who have disabilities. ACLU-VA said that Youngkin’s executive order violates the Amerricans with Disabilities Act by compelling immunocompromised students to avoid public school settings out of regard for their wellbeing.
As Executive Order 2 remains tied up in litigation, ACLU-VA representatives maintain the point of view that educational institutions have an obligation to create a safe environment for all students.
“[Our case] is about schools having the authority and discretion to provide accommodations for immunocompromised students with disabilities, including the masking of those around them, so that they can attend public school like their nondisabled peers,” said ACLU-VA Legal DirectorEden Heilman.
“It’s about ensuring that schools can implement a coordinated public health response, as necessary, if the circumstances require it. It’s about ensuring that all students have access to a safe learning environment.”
This development comes amid a polarizing debate, in Virginia and across the nation, about mask mandates. A poll conducted by Roanoke College’s Institute for Policy and Opinion Research toward the end of 2021 found Virginia Democrats more in favor of mask mandates in grocery stores, restaurants and other public places than their Republican counterparts. While 72 percent of respondents said they would wear masks, restaurants have reported seeing declines in patrons’ mask usage.
Last weekend. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that more than 70 percent of people live in regions of the United States that no longer require healthy people to wear masks indoors. Officials cited community level metrics (low, medium, or high) based on new COVID-related hospitalizations, hospital capacity and new COVID cases.
In Northern Virginia, Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William have been designated as low community level. Meanwhile, the CDC has given Stafford County, Virginia a medium level. People with a high risk for severe illness have been encouraged to consult their doctors about wearing a mask and taking other precautions.
In Alexandria, City Councilmember John Taylor Chapman (D) said he has heard from teachers and administrators who are anxious about the end of mask mandates at a time when younger students haven’t been vaccinated. However, he acknowledged an agreement among politicians and residents alike, political affiliation, notwithstanding about moving out of the pandemic.
How to do so has been a topic of discussion. In speaking about immunocompromised students, Chapman, who’s serving his third term as city councilmember, emphasized the need to strike a balance and keep in mind the needs of at-risk populations. He cited policies that mandate adults wearing masks as a good step in staying true to that cause.
“You have Democrats who are loud about getting to a place where they don’t need masks, so I don’t know that it’s as partisan as it was in the beginning or middle,” said Chapman.
“We get rid of the mask mandates, it’s about having respect for people and populations who might be affected more than others. It’s one thing to not have masks at all, but understanding you have an immunocompromised community and kid who can’t get vaccinated. How do you respect their safety?”