[Updated to include final Senate vote on bill that took place on Feb. 9.]
Legislation that would put an end to mandatory student masking at all Virginia public schools received a mixed response from the three members of the Arlington delegation to the state Senate.
Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax-Arlington) on Jan. 8 voted to support incorporating the concept into existing legislation, while Sens. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-Fairfax-Loudoun) and Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria-Arlington-Fairfax) opposed it.
The wording, which passed the state Senate on a lopsided 29-9 vote Feb. 8, was patroned by Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax-Vienna), a vocal critic of mandatory masking policies.
The measure unmasked splits within the Senate Democratic caucus, with 10 supporting the bill, nine opposing it and two not voting. All 19 Republicans supported the measure.
A day later, the state Senate passed the broader bill, patroned by Republican Dr. Siobhan Dunnavant, which also included language mandating that public schools retain an in-person option even if COVID spikes again.
The full bill passed the Senate 21-17, with a few Democrats, including Petersen (but not Howell), joining with Republicans.
The bill moves on to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, which seems destined to approve it. The bill, SB 739, has the support of the Youngkin administration.
Whether the measure would have any practical effect, or is merely political theater, is an open question. Backers have devised a plan that would, after expected passage by the House of Delegates, have Gov. Youngkin propose an amendment to treat the bill as an emergency measure. Unlike legislation that originates in the General Assembly, which requires a supermajority of both houses for immediate enactment of legislation, an amendment from the governor would only require majority votes, Republicans say. That would allow the measure to go into effect immediately, if at least one of the Democrats in the Senate went along.
A coalition of Northern Virginia school districts has sued the Youngkin administration, arguing that the new governor’s executive order requiring a mask-optional policy for all Virginia school districts violates their rights. The measure, now working its way up the judicial system, likely will be decided by the Virginia Supreme Court – unless the school districts throw in the towel first.
Petersen is something of a renegade Democrat, and had promised at the start of the 2022 General Assembly session that if local school districts did not end their mask mandates – which he believes are ineffective and do more harm than good – he would force the issue. Which he then proceeded to do, but only after first ripping into outgoing Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand in a letter castigating that district’s mandatory-masking policy.
The fact that more than half the Senate Democrats voting opted to support Petersen’s position suggests how quickly the political winds on masking appear to be changing across the nation. A number of Democratic-dominated states are beginning to eliminate their own mask mandates, an effort that seems likely to be driven as much by polling data as by major changes in public health.