Youngkin signs bill to ban mask mandates in Virginia schools

(The Center Square) – Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed legislation Wednesday afternoon that allows parents to opt their children out of public school mask requirements, effectively banning mandates on public school students.

“It is a sunny day in Virginia,” Youngkin said in a news conference. “Since day one, we have been advocating, we have been standing up together for parents’ rights to make decisions for their children.”

Senate Bill 739 will not prohibit schools from making their own mask policies, but it will prevent them from enforcing the rules on students if their parents opt them out. A parent can opt their children out for any reason and will not need to provide an explanation to the schools. The law prohibits schools and teachers from using disciplinary or academic punishments as a means to force compliance on the students.

“Our kids couldn’t wait, and I’m proud that our team was able to deliver for them,” House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement. “Here in Virginia, parents are back in charge.”

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, but the original language did not prohibit mask mandates in public schools. After it was brought to the Senate floor, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax offered an amendment to include the ban on mask mandates. The amendment garnered support from every Republican and a small handful of Democrats. In the House, it passed with support from Republican leadership and opposition from Democratic leadership.

Supporters of the legislation argued there is no evidence that mask mandates in public schools have decreased the transmission of COVID-19 and that children rarely have severe complications from the virus, but that mask mandates are causing developmental difficulties for children. Opponents argued that the bill would prevent schools from working with their local health officials to develop the best policies for themselves and prevent them from responding to changes in the pandemic.

“Kids and parents around Virginia are smiling today,” Carrie Lukas, a member of the Independent Women’s Network and mother of five children who are enrolled in Virginia public schools, said in a statement.

“And we will soon be able to see those children’s smiles, after two years of having them hidden from us,” Lukas said. “Finally, thanks to bipartisan legislation signed by Governor Youngkin, parents will have the right to make an important decision for their kids – whether or not they should wear a mask while they are at school.”

The legislation went into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature. Local school divisions are required to comply with the rule by March 1.