ARLINGTON, Va. (CN) — Virginia schools can keep in place mandates requiring students to wear masks in the classroom to protect against Covid-19, a state judge ruled Friday afternoon, blocking the Republican governor's order making masks optional.
In a 10-page order issued two days after she heard arguments in the case, Arlington Circuit Court Judge Louise M. DiMatteo granted a temporary restraining order allowing the schools to keep universal masking requirements in place, despite the fact that newly inaugurated Governor Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order on Jan. 15 allowing parents to disregard masking rules.
By law, the governor possesses "significant and sweeping general powers to address an emergency," DiMatteo wrote. But she also pointed out that Virginia has a specific statute -- Senate Bill 1303 -- directing school boards to follow the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The single issue before the court is whether the governor, via his emergency powers, can override the decisions of local school boards delegated to them under SB 1303," the judge wrote. "On this pivotal point, the court concludes the governor cannot."
It does not follow, she added, that the governor, "even in an emergency, can direct the school boards to ignore the General Assembly's deference to CDC guidance and to abandon their considered determination about what is practicable regarding those mitigation strategies."
Youngkin's spokesperson tweeted that there would be an appeal.
"The governor will never stop fighting for parents’ ability to choose what is best for their children. The gov often said that this is not a pro-mask or anti-mask debate. It’s about parents knowing what’s best for their child’s health, & opting-out should there be a mask mandate," Macaulay Porter wrote.
A statement by the school boards said the decision allows for the protection and well-being of all students and staff and "reaffirms the constitutional right of Virginia’s local school boards to enact policy at the local level."
Universal masking is one of the mitigation strategies aimed at stemming the spread of the Covid-19 virus, and some parents have complained about the mask mandates.
In first day on the job as governor, Youngkin issued the executive order declaring that “parents of any child enrolled in an elementary or secondary school or a school based early childcare and educational program may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.”
Several lawsuits have been filed in response. The one in DiMatteo's court was filed Jan. 24 by seven school boards from around the state. Most of the boards represent populous northern Virginia, including Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church and Prince William County. The remaining two boards are from Richmond and Hampton.
The lawsuit described Youngkin's executive order as a "clear violation of the school boards’ constitutional rights and responsibilities as well as to the entire structure for the supervision of public education in Virginia.” Youngkin filed a counterclaim contending the school boards were defying his lawful order.
Globally, there have been more than 390 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 5.7 million deaths, including 76.2 million infections and 900,000 deaths in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.
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