Virginia’s Democrat-controlled Senate is suddenly about to pass a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of wearing masks. In Tuesday’s session, State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) amended State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant’s (R-Henrico) in-person learning bill to include the mask-opt-out clause – and 10 out of 21 Democrats voted with Republicans to approve the change, setting up the bill for final passage on Wednesday.
Despite vocal Democrats and some urban school boards pushing back against Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order requiring a school mask mandate opt-out, Petersen has been calling for a masking off-ramp. On Monday, he sent a letter to several Northern Virginia schools warning of his plans to introduce legislation to that effect. He argued that mask-wearing is a political decision.
“In other words, by wearing a mask in a public setting, the wearer is able to communicate a political message, e.g. ‘I Care About Others’ or ‘I voted for Biden’ or even ‘I’m vaccinated.’ The ability to communicate a political message is the essence of our First Amendment, but coercing others into adopting that statement, especially a student in a public school, is the exact opposite,” Petersen wrote.
Petersen has been a key player in return-to-normal policy, supporting a 2021 in-person learning bill and amending Virginia’s budget to require the Department of Motor Vehicles to open for in-person same-day service.
Petersen, GOP senators, and Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears can pass Dunnavant’s SB 739 with Petersen’s amendment without support from any other Democrats in Wednesday’s vote, but more may join given their support of his amendment. From there, the bill will go to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and then to Governor Glenn Youngkin, who has already indicated he will sign it.
“I applaud Senator Petersen’s amendment to give parents the right to decide whether their children should wear masks in schools. In the last week, we have seen Democrat-led states like Oregon, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware move away from universal mask mandates in schools. I am pleased that there is bipartisan support for doing the same in Virginia. This shows that when we work across the aisle, we put Virginians first. I look forward to signing this bill when it comes to my desk,” Youngkin said in a press release issued shortly after the vote.
Youngkin’s executive order requiring schools to allow mask mandate opt-outs is facing legal challenges, including a lawsuit questioning Youngkin’s authority to supersede state law and school board decisions, and an injunction against enforcement is in place while that case proceeds. But the General Assembly has more authority.
The short-term battle over school mask policy will continue since bills don’t take effect until July following passage. Before signing it, Youngkin could opt to send the bill back to the General Assembly with an emergency clause; if approved, that would make the bill take effect sooner.
On Tuesday morning, Petersen appeared on The John Fredericks Show.
Petersen told Fredericks, publisher of The Virginia Star, “By the way, John, if the school systems spontaneously, you know, decide this week or tomorrow or Monday to say ‘you know what? it’s over,’ then I’d be as happy as anybody else, although the trust factor is a little bit low right now. But you know what, at the end of the day, I just want to get to the right place, which is having the kids free to learn and to be themselves again.”
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Siobhan Dunnavant” by Virginia Senate. Photo “Chap Petersen” by Fairfax Senator. Background Photo “Classroom” by Wokandapix.