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Bipartisan law, SB 1303, sparks debate as new VA governor is set to lift school mask order
There's a renewed debate over mask-wearing in Virginia schools, as Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin has said he will lift the current order mandating masks in schools on day one in office.{p}{/p}

Virginia Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin has made it clear he intends to rescind a statewide school mask order on his first day in office.  And on the eve of his inauguration, that's leading to a renewed debate over mask-wearing in schools.

"Parents do have a fundamental right to make decisions for their children. And we are going to protect that right. So yes, on day one, we are going to rescind the executive order that requires all children in K-12 schools to wear a mask to school," Youngkin told 7News earlier this week.

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7News then began reaching out to Northern Virginia school districts, asking how they would respond if the governor-elect lifts the current order that requires masks to work in school buildings.  Stafford County Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools both referenced Senate Bill 1303 in their responses.

See the full list of responses from local school districts at the bottom of this article.

"Like all school divisions in Virginia, any decision to remove masks would be made by the school board after a public meeting. More information would be required as Senate Bill 1303 requires that masks be worn in schools and on buses," a spokesperson for Stafford County Public Schools wrote in a statement sent to 7News.

Senate Bill 1303 is a state law that was approved and signed into law last year, with bipartisan support in Richmond.

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RELATED: Virginia legislators say this new law is helping keep schools open during Omicron surge

The law requires local school boards to offer in-person instruction to students, with limited exceptions.  The bill also says school districts should "provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

That is the clause that's now the subject of scrutiny as it relates to school mask mandates and policies moving forward. 

Fairfax County Public Schools referenced that portion of Senate Bill 1303 in a statement sent to 7News, saying that "until the CDC, Virginia Health Department and local health department advises school divisions that children and staff inside school buildings no longer need to wear masks, we will continue to require this for in-person instruction."

"I think the law is pretty clear, and it was written to be pretty clear, and was written to keep kids in classrooms," said Democratic Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-VA 72nd District).  

VanValkenburg, who's also a high school teacher, says he pushed for the language surrounding mitigation strategies to be included in the final version of the bill that was approved by the General Assembly.

"The language we added on the House side was really about putting these kinds of public health guardrails around school reopening, so that we could be flexible as the virus mutated and changed and as times changed," he said.  "So yeah, as written, the law says you have to follow CDC guidelines, and right now that means masking.  And I think that's kind of separate from what the governor says, because the laws are written by the General Assembly, not by governors.  So I do think the law requires it in the moment."

But Republican Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R - VA 12th District), who first introduced Senate Bill 1303, disagrees.

"Senate Bill 1303 requires schools to stay open full time and for school divisions, as constitutionally empowered, to decide what mitigation procedures they adhere to consulting the recommendation from the CDC. It does not mandate any requirements," Dunnavant said in a written statement sent to 7News on Friday.

Dunnavant also plans to ask soon-to-be-Attorney General, Republican Jason Miyares, to weigh in.

7News has reached out to school districts in Northern Virginia, asking how they would respond if Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin lifts the current order that requires masks to be work in school buildings.

7News reached out to Attorney General-Elect Jason Miyares as well.  A spokesperson for his office said they couldn't comment "because we are advising the governor-elect on this issue".

VanValkenburg said he expects Miyares' interpretation of the law to be different from his own.

"It will take a lawsuit to flesh out the judicial interpretation of those lines in Senate Bill 1303, and so I think what you'll see is some localities keep it, and you'll see some localities that will get rid of the masks," VanValkenburg said. "And I think you'll see it play out in the courts, but ultimately the school year will probably be over by the time that fight plays out."

Senate Bill 1303 also includes a clause that says the law will expire on August 1, 2022.  It will likely be revisited during the 2022 legislative session.

Meanwhile, the five health directors in Northern Virginia recently sent a letter to school superintendents, urging them to maintain universal indoor masking amid the Omicron variant and a recent surge in cases.

RELATED: Virginia legislators say this new law is helping keep schools open during Omicron surge

Below are the responses 7News has received so far from local school districts, about what they plan to do if Governor-Elect Youngkin lifts the statewide order mandating masks in schools, as he's indicated he will do.

Arlington Public Schools:

"Masks will continue to be required in our buildings, as part of our layered approach to keeping schools open and safe. Universal mask use is a core safety measure that is effective in reducing germ transmission in our schools. We will continue to make decisions that prioritize the health, safety and wellbeing of our students and staff, following the guidance of local, state and national health professionals. Arlington Public Schools implemented our mask requirement this school year prior to Governor Northam’s K-12 mask order."

Alexandria City Public Schools:

"We will wait to hear from the new Governor about any policies he puts into place," ACPS Chief of School and Community Relations Julia Burgos told 7News in an emailed statement.

Fauquier County Public Schools:

"The health and safety of students and staff remain a top priority for Fauquier County Public Schools. As we receive additional guidance, we will adjust our mitigation strategies as necessary to preserve safe, in-person learning to the greatest extent possible."

Loudoun County Public Schools:

"LCPS will continue to follow CDC guidelines and the advice of the Loudoun County Health Department. LCPS updates the school community each Wednesday as news warrants."

Prince William County Public Schools:

"We are aware that the incoming Governor may announce executive orders that modify guidance on masks and vaccines. Currently, PWCS COVID-19 mitigations remain unchanged, including mask requirements. We will continue to evaluate local, state, and national guidance, and communicate any updates as they are determined."

Stafford County Public Schools:

"Like all school divisions in Virginia, any decision to remove masks would be made by the school board after a public meeting," a school district spokesperson wrote in response to 7News, adding that more information would be needed about the impacts of Senate Bill 1303 as it relates to mask wearing in schools.

Fairfax County Public Schools:

"FCPS will continue to follow recommendations from local and national experts and require all students and staff to wear masks, except at times and on occasions already designated in previous communications.

In addition, SB1303 says: school divisions need to 'provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.' Until the CDC, Virginia Health Department and local health department advises school divisions that children and staff inside school buildings no longer need to wear masks, we will continue to require this for in-person instruction. Our layered prevention strategies have proven highly effective in keeping transmission rates low in our schools and we will continue to use data and science to guide our decision-making. Review current mask guidelines on our website.

In addition, the federal requirement from February 2, 2021, is still in place on all forms of public transportation. Anyone riding a school bus is therefore required to wear a mask when embarking, disembarking and for the duration of the journey to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fairfax County Public Schools will continue to follow local, state and national guidance and any changes to our policies will be driven by their direction and assessment of the science."

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