Updated at 2:20 p.m. — Senate Bill 739 passed 21-17, with Fairfax County Sens. Janet Howell, Dick Saslaw, and Scott Surovell joining the opponents after supporting the amendment to allow parents to opt out of school mask requirements yesterday.
Earlier: Fairfax County Public Schools’ universal masking policy has encountered pushback from an unexpected source: its own state legislators.
Led by Sen. Chap Petersen (34th District), multiple Democratic senators representing Fairfax County joined Republicans (yesterday) to pass a bill amendment that would let parents opt their children out of school mask requirements, undercutting the still-undecided lawsuit filed by FCPS and six other local school boards.
The amendment is part of Senate Bill 739, which requires schools to provide in-person instruction. Petersen and chief sponsor Republican Siobhan Dunnavant (Henrico County) got a similar bill adopted last year, but this version contains no mention of mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
The full bill is being debated by the Senate this afternoon (Wednesday).
“Childhood is a moment. You turn around and it’s gone. A child grows up, and when a child loses two years to this, not based on science…but on somebody’s construction of science, that’s a tragedy,” Petersen said after calling mask requirements “a violation of the First Amendment” for “forcing [families] to adopt a statement that they or their family don’t believe in.”
If approved by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, the measure would turn Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s much-debated executive order into law. As written, it wouldn’t take effect until July 1, but the governor could potentially add an emergency clause to get it implemented by the end of February, according to The Washington Post.
FCPS reiterated its belief that universal masking remains necessary in a statement to FFXnow, noting that Fairfax County is still seeing a high level of Covid transmission in the community, even after a significant decline in cases over the past month.
“We recognize we are all tired of COVID-related health measures, but choosing a random date to stop that is not supported by science is not the way to keep our students and staff safe, nor our schools open for in-person learning,” FCPS said. “A roll back of any of our layered prevention measures needs to be in line with community transmission data and in line with health and scientific recommendations.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking, a stance shared by local health officials, according to FCPS.
Petersen told FFXnow that he has been talking to FCPS for the past year but expressed frustration that the school system hasn’t set a deadline for lifting its mask requirement or “shown scientific proof” that it has made a difference in limiting Covid’s spread.
County health officials explained at a virtual town hall last month that, while there are variables based on the kind of mask and how well it fits, the vast majority of evidence indicates that masks work and are most effective when worn by everyone.
“We are working with health experts to determine a safe and effective plan to scale back when it is appropriate to do so,” FCPS said. “FCPS will continue, as it has since this pandemic began, to prioritize the health and safety of all students and staff above politics and political expediency.”
Petersen says he agrees with Youngkin that face masks should be optional in schools, but he believes the decision should be made by the legislature, not the governor.
“People that want to move on [from Covid restrictions] and let kids live normal lives support it,” he told FFXnow, declining to comment on the split within Fairfax County’s Senate delegation.
Petersen’s amendment was approved 29-9, with Sens. Janet Howell, Dick Saslaw, and Scott Surovell among the supporters. George Barker, Jennifer Boysko, Barbara Favola, and Dave Marsden voted against the measure.
Howell’s office told FFXnow that she was unavailable to comment on the vote, while Saslaw did not return a request for comment by publication time.
Surovell told The Washington Post that he supported the amendment in part on the assumption that it would not take effect until July.
In an email sent to FFXnow at 10:10 p.m. yesterday, Boysko said she had been “on the phone all night with constituents and school board members who are upset about the amendment.”
“They want to be able to follow scientific data to make decisions that will protect students, school staff members and all of their families,” she wrote. “This should not be a political issue but one based in CDC guidance and would allow school boards the autonomy to look holistically to make decisions that would best suit their communities.”
Photo via Waldemar Brandt/Unsplash