RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — Masks will be optional in all Virginia schools starting no later than March 1 after the Virginia House of Delegates voted to include an emergency amendment from Gov. Glenn Youngkin to a bill that already passed in the General Assembly.

Click here to subscribe to WAVY’s breaking news email alerts

The vote on Senate Bill 739 was 52-48 on Wednesday afternoon. Gov. Youngkin signed the bill around 3 p.m. Wednesday.

The bill was previously approved by both houses of the legislature, but originally had a date of July 1 for masks to be optional. One of the amendments says localities must now comply by no later than March 1.

Another amendment passed Wednesday clarifies the governor still has emergency powers to reinstate a mask mandate if needed, Capitol Bureau reporter Jackie DeFusco reports.

“Since day one, we have worked to empower Virginia parents who want to have a voice in the upbringing and education of their children. This is a defining moment and decisive victory for parents and kids across the Commonwealth. We are reaffirming that parents matter by signing SB739, effectively giving parents the ability to opt-out of school mask mandates,” Youngkin said in a news release after signing the bill.

Although the bill passed with bipartisan support, many Democrats still strongly oppose the measure. Del. Marcia Price, a Democrat who represents Newport News and Hampton, calls this bill an overstep of state power.

“Taking the decisions out of the hands of those that were elected at the local level to make those decisions, I think is an overreach of our power,” said Price. “I just really hope that they got their calculations right that this will not be putting actual lives at risk but my fear is that it is.”

Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) agrees.

“What happened was now you can let politics take the place of the school board,” said Spruill. “That’s a dangerous thing to do. I’m real surprised that they would do that. Doesn’t matter which party. We have an elected school board. They know their region. They know their areas.”

The legislation passed by the General Assembly backs up Youngkin’s day-one executive order on the subject. The order was met with a flurry of legal challenges, including a lawsuit by 13 parents in Chesapeake. This lawsuit called the order unconstitutional. The parents also worried how the decision away from the local level would effect disabled and at-risk students.

We spoke with attorney Kevin Martingayle who represents the Chesapeake parents.

“I think that’s the problem, it’s a one size fits all solution to situations that vary not only in individual communities but in individual schools all across Virginia,” said Martingayle. “It’s removing the power of discretion which is something very important to give to school boards and principals. We know that some schools are designed to educate and protect individuals who have various disabilities. What does this new law do for them? It appears to do nothing for them.”

In light of this legislative action, Martingayle says his clients have not made a decision whether or not to move forward with the lawsuit.

“Regardless of whatever the Chesapeake parents do, I think that the General Assembly and the governor are setting themselves up for some real problems if they continue to ignore laws that protect induvial who have disabilities. That’s a real big mistake and it could have real serious legal consequences for everybody involved,” Martingayle said.

We also reached out to Hampton Public Schools about the new law. They were one of the school districts to join a lawsuit against Youngkin’s executive order.

A spokesperson with Hampton Public Schools sent us this statement: “We have been following SB 739 closely. Our current HCS layered health mitigation strategies are in place, including our face mask protocols/requirements. As we are currently following the law (SB 1303) in this regard, we will adhere to any new law. We will provide timely communication to our staff and families as any updates are made to our HCS 2021-2022 Health Mitigation Strategies Plan. In regard to the pending legal action, we intend to follow the recommendation of our legal counsel.”

Wednesday night, the Virginia NAACP released a statement of disapproval over the bill.

“It is disappointing to the Virginia NAACP that Senator Chap Petersen would put forth such an amendment that will knowingly harm the health and safety of our children, teaching staff, and staff personnel in schools,”
said Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr. “His sly tactics will now increase the odds that hundreds of thousands of Virginia’s children may spread and contract COVID-19 while in school.”


In the wake of the new bill, the following local districts have updated their guidance:

Accomack County Public Schools

“On Wednesday, February 16, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739 into law. It removes all school mask requirements in Virginia effective March 1, 2022. As a result, Accomack County Public Schools will transition to a mask-optional learning environment for all students in our buildings on February 22, 2022.

“However, we strongly encourage mask wearing as a key mitigation strategy in our efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and community. We will continue to follow the CDC quarantine guidelines which state that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will quarantine for five days and will be required to wear a mask at school on days 6-10. The same rules apply to unvaccinated close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases. In making this transition, we will focus on maintaining a positive and welcoming learning environment.

“It is important to note that Senate Bill 739 does not apply to students on school buses. Federal regulations still require students to continue wearing masks while riding the bus. At this time, all staff members will also be required to wear masks in our buildings per Virginia Department of Labor and Industry guidelines, as will all visitors. We will monitor these regulations and guidelines for any changes or updates.
As a school division, we will continue to review and update our mitigation strategies to keep our staff and students safe and our schools open. As always, thank you for your flexibility, support, and understanding as we navigate the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Hampton

Hampton City Schools provided this message to families after Gov. Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739.

“As we have been currently following the law (SB 1303) in this regard, we will also adhere to the new law (SB 739). As a result, starting Tuesday, February 22, students will have the option to wear or not wear a mask in all Hampton City schools. No documentation will be required to remain unmasked. It is important to note that we will not be able to accommodate requests for class changes or special seating assignments due to mask preference.”

Mask requirements will remain, however, for:

  • Any individual on school buses per federal regulation.
  • All HCS staff (regardless of vaccination status) per Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) regulations, while our region is in high transmission per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • All adults (regardless of vaccination status) that visit an HCS school building in any capacity, including tutors, spectators, volunteers, or visitors.

The school system added that while mask use will be optional, they highly recommend students continue to wear a mask in schools “as our community remains in a status of high COVID transmission.”

Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight County Schools announced it will make masks optional for all students and staff beginning on February 22. The message to families added, “We continue to strongly encourage mask wearing as a key strategy in our efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and community.”

Students will continue wearing masks on school buses.

Newport News Schools

A spokesperson with Newport News Public Schools told 10 On Your Side communication would go out to families on Tuesday, Feb. 22 about the transition to optional mask use for students.

“While face masks will continue to be a key measure for the prevention of COVID-19, NNPS leaders have assessed the school division’s COVID protocols and are prepared and able to transition to a mask-optional learning environment for all students beginning Thursday, February 24, 2022.

“No documentation or parental notification will be required for students to be masked or unmasked. In preparation for maintaining a mask-optional learning environment in schools, parents/guardians are asked to discuss mask preference with your children to make sure that they are aware of your expectations while at school. Teachers and staff will not be responsible for student mask use or nonuse. However, students who are wearing a mask may be asked to wear them correctly. Additionally, principals will not be able to accommodate requests for class changes or classroom seating assignments due to mask preference.

“Wearing masks on school buses is still required for all students and staff as mandated by order of the CDC under the Public Health Service Act.

“The wearing of face masks will continue to be required for all NNPS employees per Virginia Department of Labor and Industry regulations until further notice. Individuals who support instruction (classroom volunteers, in-school tutors and substitutes) are also required to wear face masks in school.

“While still encouraged, wearing a mask is optional for parents/guardians and other visitors while inside schools and administrative offices. Masks will be required to be worn by all individuals while in the school clinic.

“Newport News Public Schools remains committed to the health and wellbeing of all students, staff and visitors. Disposable masks will be available to individuals who need or request one. Masks are still encouraged to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19. NNPS will continue to adhere to its COVID-19 preventative actions including the daily COVID-19 self-screening for all students and staff and encouraging all eligible students and staff to get vaccinated. Physical distancing to the maximum extent possible will still be encouraged and other measures such as hand washing, consistent cleaning/disinfection, HEPA air purification, in-classroom health stations, COVID symptom isolation rooms, and contact tracing will remain in place.

“This email is intended to provide staff and families adequate notification of the change in safety procedures. NNPS’ online COVID-19 health and safety protocols will be updated by February 23, 2022, to reflect the mask option for students and recent guidance from the Virginia Department of Health related to COVID-19 isolation and quarantine.

“Newport News Public Schools understands that student mask preference is a choice. As an inclusive school division, NNPS values and encourages mutual respect and civility, attributes reinforced through the youth development program. Students, families and staff are encouraged to respect the mask choice of others at school.

“Thank you for your continued cooperation and support.”

Norfolk Public Schools

Dear Norfolk Public Schools’ Families:

On Wednesday, February 16, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739 into law. This legislation removes all school mask requirements in Virginia effective March 1, 2022, as follows:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law or any regulation, rule, or policy implemented by a school board, school division, school official, or other state or local authority, the parent of any child enrolled in a public elementary or secondary school, or in any school-based early childhood care and education program, may elect for such child to not wear a mask while on school property. A parent making such an election shall not be required to provide a reason or any certification of the child’s health or education status. No student shall suffer any adverse disciplinary or academic consequences as a result of this parental election.

During its work session of Wednesday, February 16, 2022, the School Board of the City of Norfolk directed Superintendent Dr. Sharon I. Byrdsong and the board’s legal counsel to prepare a resolution to make mask wearing for students optional while on school property. The board will consider this resolution during its upcoming work session of March 2, 2022.

We will continue to provide you updates as appropriate.

Northampton County Public Schools

Dear Families,

On Wednesday, February 16, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739 into law. It removes all school mask requirements in Virginia.. 

As a result, the Northampton County Public Schools will transition to a mask-optional learning environment for all students in our buildings, effective Wednesday, February 23, 2022. However, we will continue to strongly encourage mask-wearing as a key strategy in our efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and community. 

In making this transition, we will focus on maintaining a positive and welcoming learning environment in which students feel comfortable wearing a mask if they choose to do so. Please speak with your children about your decision and expectations about whether they will or will not wear masks in school, and ask that they respect the choices of other students.  School employees will not be asked to enforce parents’ mask decisions.  

 Click here to read Superintendent Lawrence’s letter about the mask mandate 

Portsmouth Public Schools

Earlier today, Gov. Youngkin signed a new bill into law which allows masks to be optional for students. As a reminder, this does not go into effect until Tuesday, March 1. This means all students and staff are still expected to be masked while on school campuses until that time.

In addition, please note that the School Board of the City of Portsmouth will be discussing the issue at its meeting Thursday, Feb. 24. As in the past, any operational changes that stem from the meeting will be shared with you directly.

Suffolk Public Schools

Effective on February 28, 2022, the parent of any child enrolled in Suffolk Public Schools may elect that their child not wear a mask while on school property as provided for by Virginia Code Section 22.1-2.1(C), which was recently signed into law by Governor Youngkin. 

This masking option ONLY applies to students and does not apply to employees, parents, or visitors while on the property of Suffolk Public Schools. This option also does not apply to students while being transported on a school bus. Federal law requires the use of face coverings while on school buses. All employees, parents, and visitors, while on the property of Suffolk Public Schools, are required to wear a face-covering to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Suffolk Public Schools property” includes extracurricular activities and school board meetings. 

While wearing face-coverings will be optional for our students, Suffolk Public Schools will continue to strongly encourage them to wear masks while on the school division property to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

For questions, please contact the School Administrative Offices at 757-925-6750.

Virginia Beach

The Virginia Beach School Board met and heard recommendations for masking protocols. Starting Feb. 28, masks will be optional for students, including for extracurricular activities. Students will not need to submit an opt-out form, as they were previously required to do.

Staff will still be required to wear masks, per state guidelines. Students and staff will also still be required to wear masks on buses.

Here’s the full message sent Feb. 23 to families:

“Good evening, VBCPS families and staff-

“Yesterday, the School Board of the City of Virginia Beach heard the division’s recommendations regarding our masking protocols following the governor signing Senate Bill 739 into law. SB739 removes all mask requirements for students in Virginia no later than March 1, 2022.

“Beginning Monday, Feb. 28:

-Masks will be optional for students when on Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) property. This includes during extracurricular activities. Opt-out forms are not necessary and will no longer be collected by schools.
-Masks will be optional for visitors on VBCPS property.
-All staff members will still be required to wear masks in our buildings, per current Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) guidelines. A DOLI committee recently proposed removing this requirement, which now requires a 30-day public comment period. Any changes after that 30-day comment period will be shared with staff and families.
-Per federal requirement, students and staff will need to continue wearing masks on school buses.

“VBCPS, in partnership with the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health (VBDPH), continues to recommend wearing masks during periods of high and substantial transmission as part of our layered strategy to protect our students and staff from COVID-19, and we want to maintain a positive and welcoming learning environment in which students feel comfortable wearing a mask if they choose to do so. KN95 masks have been made available to staff and students who want them.

“Other layers of our prevention strategy, which are reviewed and approved by the VBDPH, include:

-Encouraging vaccination
-Using the self-screening tool and staying home when sick
-Physical distancing where possible
-Maximizing use of outdoor spaces
-Increased ventilation by opening windows when possible

“We will be offering voluntary, no cost COVID-19 testing (the nose-swab test) to staff and students beginning next week. Details on those sites and times will follow in a separate message tomorrow evening. At-home test kits are available for staff and students who are symptomatic while at school and for those identified as close contacts.

“Thank you for your support of Virginia Beach City Public Schools.”

York County

During a special meeting, the York County School Board voted to adjust some of the division’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Beginning Tuesday, February 22, students will have the option to remove masks while inside YCSD school buildings and offices.

Students will still be required to wear masks while on school buses in accordance with federal orders.

Additionally, contact tracing responsibilities for positive COVID-19 cases involving students and staff members will be shifted from division staff to the Peninsula Health District. Students and staff should still report a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 and follow isolation guidelines. Additionally, all students and staff should continue daily health screenings and stay home when sick to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and other viruses.

The Department of Labor order requiring employees to wear masks in schools and offices remains in place at this time. Until further notice, visitors and volunteers will also be required to wear masks when inside YCSD facilities.


** Chesapeake Public Schools voted in January to remove the mask requirement from its school buildings.