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Irving Middle School students wear face masks in class (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools will comply with the new Virginia law prohibiting local school boards from enforcing universal mask requirements.

Face masks will be optional on school property for students starting Tuesday (March 1), Superintendent Scott Brabrand confirmed today (Friday) in a message to families.

“There will be no formal process required for those who elect for their child not to wear a mask on school property, including during School Age Child Care (SACC),” Brabrand said. “Please talk with your child before March 1 so they will be aware of your family’s preference for mask wearing at school.”

Masks will still be required on FCPS grounds for all adults, including staff and visitors, as well as for students in certain circumstances, including:

  • On school buses, as recommended for public transportation by the CDC
  • During off-campus field trips if masks are required by the venue
  • The Head Start program
  • Unvaccinated students participating in the Test to Stay program
  • When attending school in person during days 6-10 of a quarantine

The school system said that it remains “concerned about the health of our Fairfax community” due to COVID-19 and continues to “strongly recommend that all students continue to participate in universal masking for the protection of students and staff with health concerns.”

FCPS had defied pressure to end its universal masking policy, joining six other districts in suing Gov. Glenn Youngkin over his mask-optional executive order in January. However, it acknowledged that its legal options had run out after Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739 on Feb. 16.

Covid transmission in Fairfax County has declined the past month, dropping from high to substantial earlier this week, but under a roll-back plan announced on Feb. 10, FCPS had hoped to see it reach a moderate level before making masks optional.

The Fairfax County School Board says in a statement that it still has “constitutional concerns” about the state order and how it was adopted, arguing that S.B. 739 overrode its authority and left local school divisions “no flexibility to address future public health emergencies.”

“We encourage our community to continue to follow the guidance of health officials — particularly for the benefit of our immunocompromised students and staff,” the board said. “We must continue to work together to keep our schools safe and open for all.”

Photo via FCPS

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Irving Middle School students wear face masks in class (via FCPS)

Face masks will still be required in Fairfax County Public Schools when students return on Tuesday (Feb. 22).

However, the school system acknowledged in a message to the community today (Friday) that universal masking may come to an end soon. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739 into law on Wednesday (Feb. 16), allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates starting March 1.

“We recognize our legal obligations and will maintain our commitment to the health and safety of our students and staff,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand wrote.

With COVID-19 transmission declining but still high in Fairfax County, as of today, Brabrand noted that universal masking and other mitigation strategies remain in place.

Like other Northern Virginia districts, FCPS had resisted pressure from some parents and the state to end its mask requirement, arguing that it’s a necessary tool to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The school board joined a lawsuit last month to prevent Youngkin from enforcing an executive order that prohibited local schools from requiring masks. An Arlington County Circuit Court judge let Fairfax County and the other suing school systems keep universal masking in place while the legal process plays out, but the new state law has essentially rendered the lawsuit moot.

With S.B. 739 looking likely to pass the Virginia General Assembly last week, FCPS announced a plan on Feb. 10 to roll back its Covid health protocols, including by making masks optional once community transmission drops to a moderate level.

Brabrand says FCPS staff have started planning to roll back protocols in the hopes that case rates will continue to drop. He also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to update its mask guidance for schools early next week.

“We will share updates as we receive them,” he said.

We ask everyone to do their part to keep our schools safe places to learn and to respect our educators and staff who are doing everything possible to keep our schools open and safe. Please monitor for symptoms and stay home when sick. Practice good hygiene, including covering coughs and sneezes, and washing hands frequently. We encourage vaccination for all eligible children and adults as the best way to prevent serious illness and reduce absences from in-person learning.

We also ask everyone to do their part to keep our schools positive and uplifting places to learn. As we finish this school year working our way through what is hopefully the late stages of the pandemic, let’s do so with respect, kindness, and support for all.

Though FCPS indicates that it intends to comply with the new state law, county leaders have expressed frustration with what they view as the General Assembly’s encroachment on the authority of local school boards — an argument that was the basis of the school boards’ lawsuit.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay reiterated on WAMU’s The Politics Hour today his stance that no one knows school operations better than school boards.

McKay said he hasn’t spoken to state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th), who represents the City of Fairfax, Vienna, and parts of Fairfax County. Petersen introduced the amendment to S.B. 739 that added the optional-masks provision to a bill that was originally focused on in-person learning.

“It’s the law now. It’s going to be implemented,” McKay said. “We will deal with it and deal with it effectively, but it’s just not a way to govern…telling a school system what to do.”

In FFXnow’s extremely informal poll, 81% of nearly 600 respondents support masks becoming optional in schools by March 1, in accordance with the state law.

Photo via FCPS

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs S.B. 739, letting parents opt their children out of local school mask mandates (via Governor of Virginia/Facebook Live)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bill yesterday (Wednesday) making masks optional in schools by March 1.

Fairfax County and other Northern Virginia school systems have continued to require students to wear masks, even after Youngkin issued an executive order that gave parents the choice whether their children wore a mask.

The school board, along with six others, sued the governor, challenging his power to prohibit local mandates. But Senate Bill 739 makes that suit moot, establishing the order as law. All jurisdictions that have mask mandates must make them optional by March 1.

The effort to make masks optional was led by Sen. Chap Petersen (34th District). Petersen said that in the final version of the bill, the governor can reimpose mandatory mitigation measures if necessary.

“COVID-19 has been a tough and stressful time, and our kids have been hit the hardest,” Petersen said in a statement. “We are in a different world than we were two years ago. The vaccine works and is widely available. Universal mask mandates, especially for children who are healthy and vaccinated, is an onerous and outdated measure that will now end on March 1st.”

Fairfax County Public Schools said in a statement that it was reviewing the legislation to determine “what this means for FCPS.” With the bill adding pressure, the school system announced a plan last week to make masks optional once COVID-19 transmission returns to a moderate level in the county.

While cases have been declining in recent weeks, community transmission remains high, as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When should masks become optional in schools — as soon as possible or when COVID-19 transmission levels are reduced?

Photo via Governor of Virginia/Facebook Live

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A sign indicating that a face mask should be worn (via Waldemar Brandt/Unsplash)

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

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FCPS Superintendent Scott-Brabrand wears a face mask (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools will continue requiring face masks after notching a victory in its lawsuit against Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order prohibiting school mask mandates.

Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Louise DiMatteo granted a temporary injunction today (Friday) to Fairfax County and the six other school boards suing Youngkin, allowing them to enforce their mask requirements until a permanent ruling is made.

“This temporary order takes immediate action to protect the health and wellbeing of all students and staff and reaffirms the constitutional right of Virginia’s local school boards to enact policy at the local level,” FCPS said in a statement.

The school boards argued in a hearing on Wednesday (Feb. 2) that Youngkin’s optional mask order violates Virginia’s Constitution as well as Senate Bill 1303, which required schools to provide in-person learning while following federal COVID-19 health guidelines “to the maximum extent practicable.”

In her opinion, DiMatteo makes clear that the temporary injunction was granted based not on the benefits of universal versus optional masking, but on whether Youngkin had the authority to issue his executive order.

“The single issue before the Court is whether the Governor, via his emergency powers, can override the decision of local school boards delegated to them under SB 1303,” the judge wrote. “On this pivotal point, the Court concludes that the Governor cannot.”

As local school and health officials stated in a virtual town hall earlier this week, FCPS reiterated in a message to families that requiring mask-wearing inside schools remains necessary to limit Covid’s spread so students can keep learning in person:

Dear FCPS Staff and Families,

Just a short time ago, a judge in Arlington Circuit Court agreed to a temporary injunction requested by FCPS and six other Northern Virginia school districts, that takes immediate action to protect the health of our community and also reaffirms the constitutional right in the Commonwealth of Virginia of school boards to make policy decisions for their districts.

A final hearing will be held at a future date. In the meantime, Fairfax County Public Schools will continue our mask requirement for all students, staff, and visitors, a regulation that is overwhelmingly supported by our staff and families.¬†Read our statement¬†on today’s decision.

Universal mask wearing has been a critical safety measure throughout the pandemic, especially during this most recent surge. We are committed to providing all students safe and in-person instruction. We believe that in order to do so, masks and our other layered prevention strategies must remain in place for now. As a reminder, all students are required to wear a face covering while indoors on school property or during FCPS-provided transportation, unless they have an exemption.

We are working with health experts to determine a safe and effective plan to scale back when it is appropriate to do so. FCPS will continue, as it has since this pandemic began, to prioritize the health and safety of all students and staff.

Some of you will be relieved by today’s decision and others will be frustrated. We understand. We ask everyone to treat each other with kindness, respect school procedures, and work together to safely move forward.

Fairfax County Public Schools

A date for the court hearing on a possible permanent injunction has not been set yet.

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Irving Middle School students wear face masks in class (via FCPS)

Updated at 11:50 a.m. —¬†The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 8-1 this morning to support the continued mask requirement in schools and approved a letter directing Virginia to work with local health and school officials on metrics for making masks optional.

Earlier: When students across Fairfax County returned to classrooms today (Tuesday), they came wearing the most contentious, must-have accessory of the school year: face masks.

While the devices have become the subject of fierce political debate, Fairfax County Public Schools officials say that tension has not carried over into school buildings, where they have encountered few issues with getting students and staff to wear masks.

Just 40 out of the division’s nearly 180,000 students have been cited for not wearing a mask since the requirement took effect on Aug. 20, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Special Services Michelle Boyd said at a virtual town hall meeting last night (Monday).

“Certainly, students have had to be reminded to pull your face mask up and potentially to wear it appropriately, as we all have to have reminders,” Boyd said. “But by and large, we want to celebrate that FCPS students have stepped up and answered the call to keep themselves safe, to keep their friends safe, and to keep their community safe.”

Officials say the mask-wearing requirement, combined with vaccinations, testing, and other mitigation protocols, has proven effective so far at limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Fairfax County Public Schools says nearly all students have complied with its face mask requirement (via FCPS/Facebook)

As of today, FCPS students, staff, and visitors have reported 6,362 Covid cases since August, including 2,681 cases this month — double the 1,317 cases seen in December.

Boyd noted that the number of cases still represents just a fraction of the district’s 206,111 students and staff, and while there have been 36 outbreaks reported, consisting of 155 cases, there have not been any since students returned from winter break on Jan. 10.

Unlike some other school systems in the area, FCPS has not reverted any schools to virtual learning due to Covid.

Still, with the school system seeing more cases than ever and community transmission levels high, albeit declining, Superintendent Scott Brabrand says FCPS needs to “stay the course” and maintain its current health and safety practices.

“We all seek a moment when we can go to creating mask-optional conditions, but now is not the time at the greatest surge we’ve ever had in the pandemic,” Brabrand said, stating later that FCPS is working with health officials to establish metrics for when to roll back masking and other requirements.

Whether FCPS will be allowed to continue with universal masking, however, is up to the courts after the county school board joined six other localities in filing a lawsuit yesterday to prevent Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order directing schools to make masks optional from taking effect. Read More

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(Updated at 5:25 p.m.) Fairfax County Public Schools and six other school divisions, most of them in Northern Virginia, have sued to stop Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s order that makes face masks optional in schools.

As first reported by The Washington Post, the lawsuit was filed in Arlington Circuit Court this morning (Monday), asking the court for an injunction to stop Youngkin’s order from being enforced.

FCPS was joined by the school boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Falls Church City, Hampton City, and Prince William County.

Collectively representing more than 350,000 students, the jurisdictions have all promised to continue requiring masks for students and staff, defying the executive order that Youngkin issued on Jan. 15, his first day in office, and was set to take effect today.

“The question for this Court is whether, by executive order, a governor can override both the Constitution of Virginia and a law enacted by the General Assembly,” the complaint says. “The School Boards respectfully submit that the answer to this question is no.”

In a joint statement, the suing school divisions say they’re seeking to defend “the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff”:

This legal action centers on fundamental questions about the framework of public education in Virginia, as set out in the Virginia Constitution and by the General Assembly. At issue is whether locally elected school boards have the exclusive authority and responsibility conferred upon them by Article VIII, § 7 of the Constitution of Virginia over supervision of the public schools in their respective communities, or whether an executive order can unilaterally override that constitutional authority.

Also at issue is whether a governor can, through executive order, without legislative action by the Virginia General Assembly, reverse a lawfully-adopted statute. In this case, Senate Bill 1303, adopted with the goal of returning students to safe in-person instruction five days a week in March 2021 and still legally in effect, provides that local school boards should follow The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health and safety requirements.

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. Today’s action is not politically motivated. These seven school divisions would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the governor to ensure the safety and welfare of all students.

This lawsuit is not brought out of choice, but out of necessity.

With COVID-19 transmission rates high, our hospitals at crisis level, and the continued recommendation of health experts to retain universal mask-wearing for the time being, this is simply not the time to remove this critical component of layered health and safety mitigation strategies. School divisions need to continue to preserve their authority to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable, who need these mitigation measures perhaps more than anyone to be able to continue to access in-person instruction.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand reaffirmed the division’s commitment to maintaining a mask requirement due to the spread of COVID-19 in a message to the community on Friday (Jan. 21), citing state law and a regulation that made masks part of the dress code, as of Aug. 20.

“We are working towards a day when we can begin to roll back these safety measures, including universal masking,” Brabrand said. “But for right now, we must continue to protect and serve all our students, including our most vulnerable. More than anything else, these mitigation measures allow them to safely remain in our schools.”

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Face masks (via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash)

Fairfax County Public Schools plans to maintain its mask mandate despite Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order removing masking requirements in schools across the state.

The school system was one of several in the Commonwealth, particularly Northern Virginia, that pushed back against the freshly inaugurated governor’s order over the weekend.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the decision was made in alignment with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our layered prevention strategies have proven effective in keeping transmission rates low in our schools,” Brabrand wrote in a¬†message to the community on Sunday (Jan. 16). “We know our students are best served by in-person instruction. Adhering to our layered prevention strategies, especially universal masking, keep our schools open and safe places for students to learn.’

In his executive order — one of several instituted after he took office on Saturday (Jan. 15) — Youngkin said that the universal masking requirements in schools has provided “inconsistent health benefits” and inflicted “notable harm.”

“There is no greater priority than the health and welfare of Virginia’s children,” the executive order reads. “Under Virginia law, parents, not the government, have the fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care of their children.”

Brabrand did note that the school system is reviewing Youngkin’s executive order and will update the community about any changes to COVID-19 practices and protocol if they occur.

The Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics concurred with the school system’s decision.

“Face masks remain safe and reliable, and children have demonstrated their ability to wear them effectively,” the chapter’s statement reads, adding that masks allow schools to remain open.

The Democratic Party of Virginia called the governor’s actions “illegal” and an attempt to “appease the far-right instead of protecting Virginia’s children.”

“It’s a sad situation when local school boards in Virginia understand the law and the science more than the governor of Virginia does,” DPVA Chair Susan Swecker said.

But Youngkin says that while the CDC recommends masks, research has found no statistically significant link between mandatory masking and reducing transmission of COVID-19. He says that many children do not wear masks correctly and that the practice produces a “demoralizing” effect.

The executive order will go into effect on Jan. 24.

FCPS has reported 620 COVID-19 cases after five days of in-person instruction this year. A little over 1,500 students have been in quarantine this month.

Other school districts that plan to maintain their masking requirements include Arlington County, Alexandria City, Fauquier County, Loudoun County, Manassas City, Prince William County, Stafford County, and Spotsylvania County.

It is unclear how Youngkin will legally enforce the lifting of the mask requirement, but because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, localities do not have powers outside of those enumerated by the state.

Photo via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

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