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Virginia school districts sue over Youngkin order making masks optional

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Seven Virginia school districts are suing new Governor Glenn Youngkin over his executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of locally imposed school mask requirements. 

School boards in Fairfax County, Prince William County, Alexandria, Arlington, Richmond, Falls Church and Hampton have filed a complaint challenging the constitutionality of the order. The school boards say the governor’s executive order cannot supersede a March 2021 commonwealth law that says local school boards should follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Currently, the CDC recommends “universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 years and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” 

The lawsuit has been filed in Arlington County Circuit Court. 

“Without today’s action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position — faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law,” reads a statement from Fairfax County Public Schools. The county went on to say that its lawsuit “is not politically motivated,” and it “would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.”

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Current law, which expires August 1, requires each school board to adhere “to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

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But last week, Youngkin issued an executive order creating a parental opt-out for students in both public and private schools. Youngkin, who defeated Democratic opponent and former governor Terry McAuliffe in November, ran much of his campaign on parental rights in education. 

“We are disappointed that these school boards are acting counter to parents’ rights. The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education and care, as the legal process plays out,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in response to the school boards’ lawsuit. 

Youngkin noted in his executive order that “many children wear masks incorrectly,” and he argues that even though the CDC recommends masks, its own research “has found statistically no significant link between mandatory masking for students and reduced transmission of COVID-19.”

His order goes on to say, “In light of the variety of circumstances confronted by students in the commonwealth, parents should have the ability to decide whether their child should wear masks for the duration of the school day. This approach is consistent with the broad rights of parents.” 

An August CBS News/YouGov poll found 58% of parents said masks for children in their schools should be required, 36% said masks should be optional and 6% said masks should not be allowed. The vast majority of Democratic parents said masks in school should be required, while the majority of Republicans said masks should be optional. 

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CBS News’ Gillian Morley contributed to this report.

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