Saturday, July 20, 2024

The school mask wars come to northern Virginia

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Virginia’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, is taking the debate over mask mandates in schools to the Washington suburbs that are home to much of the capital’s power elite. In doing so, he gives new life to an issue that has shadowed the attempt to reopen schools, which has been frustrated by the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Students at Colin L. Powell Elementary School

Elementary school students in Centreville, Va. (Kenny Holston/Getty Images)

Last fall, Republican governors threatened districts over funding, forcing the federal government to step in and offer assistance. It is not yet clear how Youngkin will respond to districts that say they will continue to enforce masking mandates, despite an executive order he signed on his first day that said parents “may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate.”

Monday saw a legal challenge to Youngkin’s executive order from seven districts, mostly clustered in the northeastern section of Virginia, though they also include the capital city, Richmond. “It is our highest priority to have students learning in-person, and to do so in a manner that protects the well-being of all students and staff,” said an education official at one of the districts filing the lawsuit.

The White House saw benefit in challenging Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas in August and September, as both leaders are widely disliked by the Democratic base. Youngkin is a less viscerally polarizing figure, but his early moves have dismayed observers who had hoped he might take a more centrist approach.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki left little doubt that the White House stood with northern Virginia school officials. The Biden administration has maintained that masks are necessary to keep schools open, though some experts have challenged that thinking.

“The president believes that public health officials have the best guidance on what we can all do to protect ourselves, including teachers, administrators and students,” Psaki said on Monday, though she did not explicitly endorse the lawsuit by the seven districts.

Jen Psaki

White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the daily news briefing on Monday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“We need every leader to focus on using the tactics that we know work to keep our students safe and our schools open,” she added.

Youngkin’s quick move on masks hardly came as a surprise, since the politically inexperienced finance executive had run on a platform of giving parents more say over education issues, including pandemic safety measures and teaching about racism. He attracted crossover voters but also anger from progressives, who said he was using the chimera of “critical race theory” — a subject not taught in Virginia’s schools — to foster racial animus among white voters.

Psaki herself is a parent of children who attend schools in Arlington, one of the districts to challenge Youngkin’s new order. After that order went into effect, she criticized it from her personal Twitter account. “Thank you to @APSVirginia for standing up for our kids, teachers and administrators and their safety in the midst of a transmissible variant,” she wrote, effectively signaling — however informally — the administration’s opposition to the new order.

On Monday, Psaki questioned why Republicans in Virginia, Texas and elsewhere have continued to fight masking, which has been shown to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in schools if masks are worn properly and consistently. “They’re fighting against that,” she said. “Why is that? I think that has more to do with politics than it does with public health.”

How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

See the data in 3D. Explore the latest COVID-19 data in your browser of scan this QR code with your phone to launch the experience in augmented reality.

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