Screenshot of Gov. Glenn Youngkin addressing the General Assembly. At left is Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears.

RICHMOND – As Virginia reported a total of almost 1.4 million total cases of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Glenn Youngkin in his first address to a Joint Assembly in the House chamber of Richmond’s state Capitol Monday once again vowed to keep all schools open and end all mask and vaccine mandates, including those affecting healthcare workers. 

“As we battle COVID, it is parents that should decide the health measures taken for their children. This is a matter of individual liberty,” Youngkin said.

Within hours of being inaugurated, Youngkin, a Republican, on Saturday signed several executive orders, including one removing masking requirements in schools across the state. However, at least a dozen school districts have said that their masking policies will remain in place, setting them up for potential legal challenges. Youngkin also signed an order ending the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees.

 “This body passed a law that protects parents’ fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of their children. And health care workers should get to make those decisions too,” Youngkin said.

Youngkin said Monday that he will continue to oppose President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for health workers. “Our fight against COVID-19 will move forward based on this simple principle – we will protect lives and livelihoods. That means no more mandates and no more shutdowns. As I said on Saturday, it means Virginia is open for business,” Youngkin said.

On Monday, the Virginia Department of Health reported a 30.8% 7-day positivity rate for total testing encounters, and a 33.6% 7-day positivity rate for PCR tests. Additional deaths reported increased the statewide death toll at 15,814.

To counter the spike and increase in hospitalizations, which has put a strain on many of the health systems in the commonwealth – especially in rural Southwest and Southside – Youngkin renewed his push for Virginians to get inocculated. “I strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated for COVID-19, and get the booster,” he said. 

Science since the beginning of the pandemic has not been static, Youngkin added. “We now have therapeutics and better testing protocols, and fortunately a less severe variant,” he said, referring to the Omicron mutation, which scientists believe causes less severe disease in many cases. “And of course we have vaccines. It means educating our friends and neighbors and encouraging them to get the vaccine and the booster,” Youngkin said, recognizing that there still are 1.6 million unvaccinated Virginians today.

But Youngkin remained steadfast about leaving health decisions up to Virginians. “Speaking to you as your governor, I’ll never tell you what you must do. But speaking to you as a friend and a neighbor I strongly encourage you to get the vaccine,” he said. “The data is clear – people who do not get the vaccine are four times as likely to be hospitalized. The vaccine will not only help keep people out of the hospital, it will also keep people working, earning a paycheck and growing our economy, something that has to remain a top priority for us all.”

Like his predecessor Ralph Northam, Youngkin in his joint address promised to make rural Virginia a priority. “I want our rural Virginians to know we’re spreading prosperity far and wide. And rural Virginia won’t be left behind,” he said, citing job creation efforts and the arrival of high-speed broadband, which Northam accelerated by investing more than $846 million to connect 429,000 Virginia homes, businesses, and community anchors to broadband service in an effort to putting the commonwealth on track to become one of the first states to achieve universal broadband access by 2024. “Every governor for the last decade has stood in this chamber and told you that rural broadband was a priority. This time we’re going to get it done,” the governor said.

Youngkin once again touted his Day One plan – his agenda for what he wants to get done on his first day in office. “On day one, we hit the ground running, signing 11 executive actions, and swearing in a full cabinet, outstanding individuals, who are qualified and share Virginia’s values,” he said. 

Youngkin said that as of Monday, his administration has worked with legislators to introduce 59 pieces of legislation – from tax relief bills to public safety legislation – to tackle his agenda. “And we’ll be submitting a package of 25 budget amendments to reflect our bipartisan priorities. We’re addressing issues that are critical to the future of this commonwealth, and that every member in this chamber can get behind,” he said.

As one of the administration’s key-platforms, Youngkin outlined education – an issue that many political analysts say won him the election. “Education is the key to opportunity; the means by which all children and their parents can realize their greatest dream,” he said.

Virginia schools have a “lofty reputation” Youngkin added, but lately “we have not lived up” to the latter, he said. “In fact, our education standards for math and reading are now the lowest in the nation. Unelected political appointees lowered standards which inevitably led to a decline in student performance.”

About 60% of Virginia students don’t meet national proficiency standards, including over 70% of Latino students and over 80% of Black students, fail to meet standards on the math NAEP tests, Youngkin said. “Remarkably, despite these dramatic declines noted by the National Center for Education Statistics, only one Virginia school has been deemed failing because accreditation standards were lowered. Starting now we’re ending the accountability shell games intended to make us feel good but amount to the often stated ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’

Let’s stop cheating our kids.”

 Youngkin on Monday called for $150 million to help Virginia meet the goal of opening 20 new charter schools, which are public schools that may provide instruction in any combination of grades, often initiated by parents, teachers, or community members. A new charter school has to be approved by a local school district governing board. “Whether they’re called charter schools, lab schools, or schools of innovation, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t care what we call it, I just care that we do it,” the governor said. 

  Youngkin also called for an increase of teachers’ pay, which Northam also pushed for in his final two-year budget. “We will attract quality professionals to Virginia schools, and we will pay teachers as the professionals they are.” 

Yet Youngkin reiterated his campaign slogan that the party most responsible for a child’s education are parents. “My message to parents is this: You have a fundamental right, enshrined in law by this General Assembly, to make decisions with regard to your child’s upbringing, education and care. And we will protect and reassert that right,” he said. 

Youngkin pointed toward his executive order that bans critical race theory – a curriculum unpopular on the political Right that acknowledges that racism is institutionalized and is embedded in America’s history, legal systems, and policies – being taught in Virginia schools. It is currently not part of the state’s K-12 curriculum. 

“Virginia parents want our history, all of our history, the good and the bad, to be taught. And they want their children to be told how to think, not what to think. That’s why we should not use inherently divisive concepts like critical race theory in Virginia. And why we should not be teaching our children to see everything through the lens of race,” Youngkin said.

While acknowledging that Democrats won’t always agree with his policy proposals, Youngkin asked his political foes to find common ground. “Let’s work together in partnership to  build a government as virtuous as our people … one that serves,” Youngkin concluded. 

  Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, the only Democrat in the House of Delegates from west of the Blue Ridge, said in an interview after Youngkin’s speech that while he welcomed the governor’s bipartisan spirit, “the executive orders that he issued on Saturday are rather divisive in many ways.” Especially Youngkin’s “over-emphasis on critical race theory and some of these divisive issues” are not going to help move some of these conversations along, Rasoul said. 

But Rasoul also said that he appreciated Youngkin’s talk about vaccines and boosters, and his proposed investment in rural Virginia. “That is great, as long as we are making localities whole and we’re not taking away from education and other necessities.” Rasoul also applauded Youngkin’s fervor for expanding broadband. “However, former Governor Northam really led the charge in making sure we are making massive investments in this area,” Rasoul said. 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.