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

RICHMOND – Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order seeking to create an opt-out for classroom mask mandates has left many school districts in Southwest and Southside Virginia confused and scrambling as they weigh the directive against an existing, but temporary law from 2021 that requires students and staff to wear masks.

Gregory Mullins, superintendent at Wise County Public Schools, said Wednesday that his division has always complied with state law and followed the emergency order of former Gov. Ralph Northam that mandated masking up on school property and buses. “The biggest frustration at this time is that we have no clear guidance as to whether EO2 or SB1303 is our guiding star,” Mullins said, referring to the governor’s order and the contrasting bipartisan Senate bill that codified the mask mandate last year. The law is set to expire Aug. 1. 

The extremely short timeline of Youngkin’s directive – eight days – has also created very real issues for school divisions across the state, Mullins said. “We want our students to be in our schools with the least number of restrictions as possible. We want to do this in a responsible manner,” he said.

Youngkin’s order is one of the first that he issued within hours of being sworn into office Saturday. Fulfilling a campaign pledge, the directive – which will take effect Monday – states that 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.” The directive also says that recent government orders requiring “virtually every child in Virginia wear masks virtually every moment they are in school” have proven ineffective and impractical. “They have also failed to keep up with rapidly changing scientific information,” the order states.

Several school divisions across the state – mostly in more populous areas – have already announced that they would defy Youngkin’s order, setting up potential legal challenges. Among the first was Charlottesville City Schools, where Superintendent Royal Gurley informed parents Monday that the district will continue to require all students, staff, and visitors to wear masks on school grounds, school buses, and at bus stops. “In addition, we are also following the federal requirement for masking on buses. There is no change to our current practice,” Gurley said in an email. 

How Youngkin will respond to school divisions in defiance of his order isn’t clear at this point, but he told a reporter from WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. Monday that he is prepared to use “every resource within the governor’s authority to explore what we can do and will do in order to make sure that parents’ rights are protected” – which some Democrats took as a threat that he might withhold funding from schools that are not complying, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had done with schools that continued to require students and staff to wear masks.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, rebuked Youngkin on Twitter. “Cry harder @GovernorVA! Your executive orders do not change LAWS we passed,” she wrote. “Better learn how government works, we elect governors not dictators.”

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in an email that Democrats had “willfully mischaracterized” the governor’s comments to the press and “played politics” in an effort to delegitimize the rights of parents. “This is the exact type of divisive partisan politics that Virginians rejected this fall. They still refuse to stand up for parents over their children’s upbringing, education and care,” Porter said. Youngkin’s executive order allowed parents to opt out of mask mandates so that they can make the best decisions for their children, she said. “Anyone who wants to wear a mask is free to do so. Consistent with the governor’s past remarks, we will consider the tools available to make sure that parents’ rights are protected.”

But Carl Tobias, a law professor of the University of Richmond, said that he believed school boards have the right to keep the mask mandates in place because of the law that the General Assembly passed last summer saying they should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance that recommends masks. 

“I don’t think that the governor can override that law with an executive order. He needs to persuade the assembly to amend the law,” Tobias said. However, there is another law that says parents have a fundamental right to care for their children, “which may be in tension with the masking law, and the courts will need to resolve that tension,” Tobias said.

Even school districts that are open to removing the mask requirement are concerned about the implications of defying the current law mandating face coverings. Cardinal News has reached out to more than 40 divisions in Southwest and Southside Virginia, but as of Thursday morning, among those that responded only Pittsylvania County Schools have already determined to follow the governor’s directive. “More information is planned to be released to the community in this regard; however, based on the current information that we have received, the plan is to follow Governor Youngkin’s executive order as written,” said Steven Mayhew, assistant superintendent for administration.

Kelly Wilmore, superintendent at Grayson County Public Schools, said that while he is still waiting on some clarification “on a few things,” he plans to advise “that our board follow the governor’s mask opt out recommendation.”

And in Bedford County, the school board already voted to remove the masking requirement for K-12 students on Jan. 13 – two days before Youngkin issued his executive order. Teachers and staff are still required to mask up. The board also voted to scrap contact tracing within the school system. The new rules go in effect Feb. 1.  

But most districts are awaiting further guidance from state agencies before weighing to reverse existing protocols. Trying to understand the conflict between Youngkin’s directive and the current law is particularly “difficult and challenging,” said Robert Graham, superintendent at Radford City Schools. “We are taking our time to ensure we have all the details we need to move forward in the best interest of our school community,” Graham said. 

Curtis Hicks, superintendent at Salem City Schools, also said that he was waiting for the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Health to address the relationship between the executive order and the current statute as Salem and the greater Roanoke Valley are experiencing the highest levels of COVID-19 transmission since the start of the pandemic. 

“The safety of our children and our staff members has been our number one priority since we began this journey,” Hicks said, adding that officials are conferring with the school division’s attorney and are processing the input they have received from school leaders while weighing the recommendations of the local health department and from Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts. “Our policy will remain unchanged through the remainder of this week and we will let teachers, students and parents know how to proceed, well in advance of Monday,” Hicks said. 

Others are seeking answers from Attorney General Jason Miyares and Jillian Balow, Virginia’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Once we have all of this information, we will finalize our plan for addressing the executive order,” said Gina Wohlford, superintendent at Norton City Schools. Mark Burnette, superintendent at Carroll County Public Schools, said he is waiting for the same guidance. “Hopefully we will know more by Friday,” Burnette said. 

Inclement weather in some parts of the Southwest has been complicating matters at schools that have remained closed. “Our school division is operating on a remote schedule today, but our team will be meeting when we reopen to review the documentation related to the new executive order and prepare information to share with families in preparation for its Jan. 24 effect date,” Monica Hatchett, a spokeswoman Henry County Public Schools, said in an email Wednesday. 

School districts in Danville and Montgomery County also remain in a wait-and-see mode as officials are planning to discuss their next steps at school board meetings scheduled for Thursday evening. 

In a joint statement earlier this week, Virginia PTA President Pamela B. Croom and President-elect Jenna Alexander said that the organization, which has more than 175,000 members across more than 950 Virginia schools, would continue to support the most up-to-date CDC guidelines and incorporate “the best available science and expertise” of doctors and health practitioners. The CDC still recommends mask wearing in schools, among other mitigation measures.

“Maintaining the safe functioning of pre K-12 schools and high academic standards for all students should be the first priority of every school division. Every student, including our medically at-risk students should be able to safely participate in school instruction along-side their peers,” Croom and Alexander said in their statement, adding that due to the current surge in COVID-19 infections schools are struggling with severe staffing shortages, leaving students to learn on their own without qualified, licensed staff to lead instruction. “Virginia PTA renews our call for school districts to provide clear guidance about which safety mitigation measures will be in place based on the outbreak level in their division and to offer multiple modes of instruction to support student learning during quarantine,” they said. 

Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools, said his district has been working on a masking transition plan for some time. “So we’re excited about possibly removing the mask mandate for all of our students and staff in the future,” he said in an interview earlier this week.

His concern, Perrigan said, is with current Virginia Department of Health quarantine protocols for schools. Currently, he said, a student or staff member who has close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 doesn’t have to quarantine. Last week, the Bristol district reported more than 100 positive cases of COVID-19 but very few people had to quarantine, he said.

But those protocols apply only if masks are being worn in school, he said. If there are no masks and there’s a close contact, both the person who tests positive and anyone in close contact with them must be quarantined. 

Perrigan said he’d like to see a change in quarantine protocols that look more like what’s done in Tennessee, where quarantine is only required if a student or staff member comes into close contact with COVID-19 in their own home.

Perrigan said that Youngkin’s executive order could also bring changes to the state’s nascent “test-to-stay” program, which was to be rolled out this week. Bristol is one of a handful of school districts participating in the pilot program, which was designed to use frequent testing to allow close people who were in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case to remain in the classroom during their quarantine period. However, Perrigan said, the program was based on having a mask mandate in schools, so districts are waiting to see if the guidelines change.

The Bristol district surveyed staff last week about masking. About half support removing the mask mandate immediately, Perrigan said. Another 25% would prefer a phased-out approach, while the remaining 25% would like to see a mask mandate remain in effect for the immediate future. 

Now that they know the details of the executive order, they will be surveying parents, he said. “Obviously, there will be some who support it, some who won’t, and some who want to do a phased approach, but we’re anxious to see what those survey results tell us,” he said.

The district’s top priority is to maintain in-person learning, Perrigan said. The second priority: to do that as normally as possible. “So we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that we stay in school, that we don’t have to move to a virtual format, and that we have as few students as possible – and staff, really – who quarantine,” he said. “We’re just trying to balance all of that to make sure we do what’s best for kids.”

Perrigan said they’ve seen very few instances of mask noncompliance among the district’s 2,200 students. “Whatever it takes to be in person,” he said. “Whatever it takes, they’re willing to do it. … Our kids just want to be in school.”

Markus Schmidt

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

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.