County Board signals support for Arlington schools in mask clash with state

Board Chair Katie Cristol during the recessed meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 (via Arlington County)

The Arlington County Board says it’s on the side of Arlington Public Schools in the battle with the state over mask mandates.

Arlington and six other Northern Virginia school systems filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order on Jan. 15, his first day in office, prohibiting school systems from requiring students wear masks.

The order states parents should be able to “elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.”

During the County Board’s recessed meeting yesterday (Tuesday), Board Chair Katie Cristol and Vice-Chair Christian Dorsey affirmed masking as an important COVID-19 mitigation strategy and pledged to support APS.

“I think I speak for all of us in saying that we are supportive of Arlington Public Schools, the School Board and superintendent and all of their efforts to keep students and teachers safe and therefore learning in person,” Cristol said.

Dorsey said the Board believes the school system’s actions are lawful and “absolutely the right thing to do.”

“We will figure out how we can support them any way possible,” he said.

He criticized the executive order — which also requires School Boards to marshal up additional resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — as being vague and counter-productive while lacking funding.

“There’s a great question as to whether communities broadly, not just school systems, are going to be held to certain standards of making certain spending to offer COVID-19 mitigation that are currently being met with masks,” he said.

But the County Board stopped short of showing its support with a vote, a step the Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors took yesterday (Tuesday). The Fairfax County School Board is another plaintiff in the lawsuit, alongside the school boards of Alexandria City, Falls Church City, Hampton City, Prince William County and the City of Richmond.

The lawsuit claims Youngkin can’t make an order that supersedes the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level. It also claims the order contradicts a recently adopted law directing school boards to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s health and safety requirements.

Arlington Circuit Court, where the suit was filed, scheduled a hearing in the suit for Wednesday, Feb. 2. While Arlington awaits a ruling from the judge on the complaint, it had already determined it would continue its school mask requirement despite the order, which was set to take effect Monday.

The governor’s press secretary said in a statement they are disappointed in the school boards.

“The governor and attorney general are in coordination and are committed to aggressively defending parents’ fundamental right to make decisions with regard to their child’s upbringing, education, and care, as the legal process plays out,” she said in a statement to FFXnow.

Following the executive order, the Virginia Department of Health issued updated guidance Friday on preventing COVID-19 in schools, which reiterates points made in the executive order emphasizing parents’ rights, keeping schools open and providing a safe environment.

The guidance recommends several strategies for preventing the spread of virus while outlining the responsibilities of parents, school staff and public health officials. Masking is last on the list, which also includes getting the vaccine, staying home when sick and testing.

VDH says the cost of requiring masks has to be weighed with benefits, and says cloth, soiled or poorly fitted masks not worn properly don’t provide much benefit, if any. But in cases where a child is returning from isolation due to COVID-19 or was a close contact, the benefit of temporarily wearing a mask is likely to outweigh the costs, the guidance continues.

Arlington Public Health Division spokesman Ryan Hudson told ARLnow it continues to follow CDC and VDH guidance by recommending the use of several strategies to control the spread of COVID-19.

“This includes getting the vaccine, social distancing, testing, and masking in public indoor settings, when there is substantial or high community transmission,” Hudson said. “School systems (public and private) have the authority to determine their own policies to implement COVID-19 mitigation strategies to maximize opportunities for safe in-person education.”

In the meantime, the County Board may be mulling additional ways to support APS. On Saturday, during the County Board’s regular meeting, one resident exhorted County Manager Mark Schwartz to issue an emergency order permitting the Arlington School Board to maintain a mask mandate.

Dorsey said it’s an interesting idea.

“I will say, you brought up something I had not thought about before,” he said. “We’ll be inviting conversation with our counsel.”

Brandi Bottalico contributed to this report.