(Tyler Arnold | The Center Square) – After a long debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers narrowly voted to prohibit schools from enforcing mask mandates on children whose parents have chosen to opt them out of such rules, regardless of the school’s masking policy.
Although schools would be able to create masking policies under the legislation, the school could not impose such policies on students who are opted-out. Parents would not need to provide any reason to justify opting their child out of the rule. Schools would be prohibited from using disciplinary or academic punishments against students who are opted out of mask requirements.
Senate Bill 739, which was sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, passed the chamber 21-17 after a handful of Democrats joined Republicans in approving the bill. The original legislation was only meant to require schools to be open five days per week, without any mention of mask mandates. However, an amendment from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, added the masking language to the bill.
Petersen, who has consistently been one of the rare Democratic opponents of COVID-19 restrictions in the commonwealth, argued on the Senate floor that there is no evidence that mask mandates in schools made any difference in the spread of COVID-19. He encouraged lawmakers to vote for the legislation and said its opponents will keep making the same arguments every year, whenever a new variant enters the commonwealth.
Dunnavant echoed Petersen’s statements, saying there is no evidence that mandates have had any good effect on children and cited studies that demonstrated students may have negative developmental effects from them. She said the only mitigation factor that actually works is the vaccine.
“In my world, you do no harm first,” Dunnavant, who is also a medical doctor, told lawmakers. “…That is why there is room for a conversation about children not masking in school.”
Several Democratic lawmakers spoke in opposition to the bill, including Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who said local school boards should have the authority to make their own policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. She said she appreciates her children’s superintendent, administration, and school board and cautioned about public health decisions and children becoming a political football.
“I’m not speaking right now as a senator,” McClellan said. “I’m speaking as a parent.”
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said the bill should define off-ramps for ending school masking requirements, but he opposed an immediate end to schools having the authority to impose mandates. He said the legislation, as it is written, will prevent schools from reacting to future problems.
The legislation will head to the House of Delegates, which has a 52-48 Republican majority. If the House passes the bill, it will be sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin who supports ending mandatory masking in public schools.
Youngkin signed an executive order last month, which included the same language as this legislation in regard to school mask rules. However, several school districts have refused to follow the rules and sued the governor, claiming that he does not have the executive authority to do it. If this legislation becomes law, it would have the same effect as the executive order.
The executive order is still being heard in the court system. At the moment, a judge issued an injunction that prevents the state from enforcing the mask order, which allows schools to keep mandatory masking in place for the time being. Dozens of students have been suspended from schools for refusing to wear masks in the classroom after the order went into effect.