RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Senate passed a bill allowing parents to send their children to school without a mask.
Three Democrats joined the Republicans in the chamber on Wednesday to approve the measure, which effectively bans public school boards from imposing mask mandates on students.
After clearing its toughest hurdle, the legislation will now move to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, where a similar bill advanced earlier in the day. The measure is expected to sail through the House and be signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
8News has learned that Youngkin intends to add an emergency clause to the bill once it reaches his desk so it can take effect immediately. The General Assembly would have to vote on the legislation again if the governor makes such a move.
Wednesday’s bipartisan vote came after a long debate where state lawmakers clashed on the Senate floor over the efficacy of face coverings, the impact masks have had on children and the politicization of the issue.
But support from both sides of the aisle was greater on Tuesday when 10 Democrats and all 19 Republicans in the chamber approved an amendment to the bill from state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) adding the opt-out option.
State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), the lawmaker who introduced the bill, said Wednesday that she has not seen any evidence showing school districts without mask mandates have higher transmission rates than the ones with requirements.
“You don’t trust your gut, you trust the evidence,” Dunnavant said, adding that the legislature “perpetuated a mitigation strategy that does not have evidence that it actually works but does have evidence that it does harm.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, multiple reports found that COVID-19 rates were higher in school districts without mask requirements. A study done in Arizona found that schools without mask requirements were 3.5 times more likely to have coronavirus outbreaks than schools with mask mandates.
Senators who opposed the bill argued that the science around COVID-19 and the effectiveness of masking has changed and variants have made the fight against the virus unpredictable. Many addressed concerns that the bill would strip power from local school boards and limit their ability to impose rules even if community spread were to surge.
“I’m not speaking as a senator, I’m speaking as a parent,” state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said Wednesday. “It’s been difficult, watching over two years public health decisions and our children becoming political footballs.
Sen. McClellan also pointed to the students who are not yet eligible for a vaccine, those who are immunocompromised and the COVID-19 deaths, albeit unlikely, among children. She also noted how Black and brown communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
“We will eventually get back to normal. We all want that. But we have to do it in a way that is safe for everyone,” McClellan said. “Not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
If approved, the legislation would supersede Sen. Dunnavant’s bill that passed last year mandating school boards to offer five days of in-person learning and follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to the maximum extent practicable.“
Dunnavant, a practicing OBGYN, said the law on the books does not mandate masks, citing language in the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit from a group of Chesapeake parents who sued over Youngkin’s mask-optional executive order in schools.
She also expressed concerns that masks make social interactions more difficult for children and prevent those who are deaf or have other hearing impairments from communicating with their peers.
Republicans cited articles that challenge the adoption of mask mandates in schools, including a report from The Atlantic that argues the CDC’s Arizona study has “serious shortcomings.” The article states the study failed “to quantify the size of outbreaks and failure to report testing protocols for the students.”
“This argument will never go away,” Sen. Petersen said on the Senate floor, defending the effort to provide the opt-out to families. “We are going to resolve the mask wars this session.”
One lawmaker noted that the bill could have unintended consequences, saying the change could isolate some students. “There will be the maskers versus the unmaskers. Crips and Bloods. Jets and Sharks. All those things,” state Sen. David Marsden (D-Fairfax) said before the vote.
The governor does intend to add a clause that would put the bill into effect during this school year, multiple aides for Youngkin have told 8News. If the governor takes that step, the General Assembly would have to approve the move with a simple majority of the lawmakers present for the vote, according to the Senate and House clerks.
Under its current form, the legislation would take effect in July if it were signed by Youngkin. The change to the law would give Gov. Glenn Youngkin a legislative solution to the legal challenges against his mask-optional executive order in schools.
In a statement Wednesday, Youngkin called the vote a “win” for children across Virginia and that he’s proud to deliver on his promise to push “an agenda that empowers parents on the upbringing, education, and care of their own children.”
“This vote also shows that school boards who are attacking their own students are stunningly detached from reality,” Youngkin said. “It’s time to put kids first and get back to normal.”