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Court grants school boards’ request, mask mandates can temporarily continue

A discarded medical mask in the parking lot of the Shirlington Harris Teeter (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(updated at 5:30 p.m.) In a win for a number of local school boards, the Arlington County Circuit Court has issued a temporary injunction preventing Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin from banning mask mandates in schools.

The ruling came late Friday afternoon, after an emergency hearing that was held on Wednesday (Feb. 2).

As was discussed in the courtroom, the final ruling will come down to if Gov. Glenn Youngkin, even with emergency powers, has the ability to override local school boards’ decisions given to them in Senate Bill 1303. The court ruled today that the argument has merit so issued a temporary injunction allowing schools to continue their policies.

In response, Arlington County Public Schools issued a statement on behalf of all the involved school boards. It reads in part:

“The School Boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County are pleased with the temporary injunction granted today by the Arlington Circuit Court. The order allows schools to continue to protect the health and well being of all students and staff. While the legal process on this matter continues, today’s ruling preserves the existing policies and practices in Virginia school divisions, which includes masking requirements.”

On Jan. 15, the day after his inauguration, Youngkin issued an executive order banning mask mandates in Virginia schools. Days later, he was sued by seven state school boards including by those in Arlington, the City of Alexandria and Fairfax County.

The lawsuit claims that the executive order is in violation of the Virginia Constitution that gives individual school boards the authority to supervise public schools. The suit also alleges that the order violates Senate Bill 1303, signed into law last March, that requires schools to offer for in-person learning while following CDC guidance and applying “any currently applicable mitigation strategies” to reduce the transmission of Covid.

“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,” the Arlington Public Schools press release said about bringing the lawsuit. “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.”

Another hearing will be set in regards to a permanent injunction.

 

The full APS statement is below.

The School Boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County are pleased with the temporary injunction granted today by the Arlington Circuit Court. The order allows schools to continue to protect the health and well being of all students and staff. While the legal process on this matter continues, today’s ruling preserves the existing policies and practices in Virginia school divisions, which includes masking requirements.

This declaratory judgment action was brought by seven school boards: the School Boards of Alexandria City, Arlington County, City of Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Hampton City and Prince William County. Together these school districts serve over 350,000 students in Virginia.

The lawsuit raises 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, and 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 in legal effect, provides that local school boards should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health and safety guidelines to the maximum extent they deem practicable in their respective jurisdictions.

Prior to today’s decision, Virginia school boards were placed in a legally untenable position — faced with an executive order in conflict with the state constitution and state law. That conflict has also put the health and safety of our students and staff at risk, as the Omicron variant continues to affect Virginia localities. We are confident that the court will soon come to the right decision to resolve this pressing matter.

We look forward to a day in the not-too-distant future when universal mask-wearing is no longer needed as part of our layered health mitigation strategies in order to keep our schools open for in-person learning, but that day is not yet here. We would like to thank our community for their diligence and patience as we navigate these challenging times, keeping the safety and best interests of our students and staff at the forefront in our communities.

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