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Catholic Diocese of Arlington tells schools to follow Youngkin’s mask exemption order

The Diocese of Arlington is advising Catholic schools to follow Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) executive order exempting families from school-based mask mandates.

One of Youngkin’s first acts in office was an executive order intended to let parents decide whether their children wear masks to school. It goes into effect Monday and rescinds former Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last year requiring masks in schools.

In a letter to school leaders explaining what this means for schools in the Diocese of Arlington — which encompasses 21 counties and seven cities in Northern Virginia — Superintendent of Schools Joseph E. Vorbach III says state requirements supersede local public health guidance.

“Throughout the pandemic, our Catholic schools have been directed to follow state and local public health directives,” he writes. “Where those have been in conflict, the state requirement has primacy.”

The executive order says parents of a child enrolled in elementary or secondary school or a school-based early child care 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,” the order reads.

The state legislature, however, passed a law that some schools systems interpret as protecting their ability to establish mask mandates in order to offer in-person instruction. The executive order’s legality has since been challenged by some parents who sued. Attorney General Jason Miyares has already asked the lawsuit be dismissed.

In response, Arlington Public Schools, as well as other public school systems, including those in Alexandria and Fairfax County, have come out with guidance defying Virginia’s new governor. Last night (Thursday), the Arlington School Board voted to retain the school system’s mask requirement.

But Catholic schools in the sprawling Diocese of Arlington, which reaches from Arlington to Shenandoah County, are being told to follow Youngkin’s order while keeping up other mitigation strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Diocesan direction to our schools is to continue following local public health guidance, without however, violating the rights of parents as described in Executive Order 2,” Vorbach said. “The governor’s executive order is clear on the right of parents not to have their child be subject to a mask mandate.”

As for how school administrators should walk this tight-rope, Vorbach says schools should provide updated, school-specific guidance to faculty and parents and maintain other COVID-19 protocols.

“The diocese continues to elect to follow CDC guidelines for isolation of those who contract COVID-19 and quarantining for those who come in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19,” he said.

Spokeswoman Amber Roseboom tells ARLnow that one way administrators can navigate this shift in approach is to identify “which parents prefer their children to wear a mask in school.”

In addition, she said, the schools will keep up with other public health recommendations related to isolation and quarantine.

“Local public health guidance remains very important, and our schools are continuing to employ a variety of COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” she said. “We are following isolation and quarantine recommendations to the greatest extent possible. Our schools communicate with local public health offices regularly. The Executive Order allowing parental choice on masks is a new variable our schools will work with, as we have done in each situation over the past two years.”

The CDC, which recommends masking, has published studies showing more COVID-19 cases among schools without universal masking policies, although some have questioned the science behind this guidance.

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