As had their state Senate colleagues the preceding week, members of Arlington’s delegation to the House of Delegates were unanimous in their opposition to legislation ending mask mandates on students in Virginia’s public-education system.
But the opposition did nothing to stop the bill’s momentum – the measure on Feb. 14 won final passage in the House of Delegates and is on its way to Gov. Youngkin.
The governor is not only expected to sign it, but to amend the bill to make the measure effective immediately, rather than the usual July 1 implementation date for new legislation. If, as expected, that amendment wins legislative approval, the new rules could go into effect as early as next week.
Unlike the state Senate, where three Democrats crossed the aisle to side with Republicans, the House of Delegates vote was on a strictly partisan 52-48 tally. But unlike the Senate, the GOP has control of the House of Delegates and did not need any Democratic support.
Ending mask mandates as imposed by the Northam administration on students during the COVID crisis was seen by Republicans in the House of Delegates as a boost to individual choice, not to mention a dividend paid to those voters who gave them the majority in last November’s elections. But it was derided by Democrats as threatening recovery from the pandemic.
“We’re effectively undermining our public-health system,” said Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), by putting decision-making “in the hands of parents.”
That’s exactly where it should be, Republicans retorted.
“Parents are best positioned” to make risk assessments for their own children,” said Del. Amanda Batten (R-James City County).
The bill, which has passed the Senate on a 21-17 vote on Feb. 9, also requires that school systems maintain in-person instruction in most cases, come what may on the COVID front.
On the House floor Feb. 14, Democrats attempted several procedural maneuvers and offered a number of amendments, which were batted back by the GOP majority en route to a final vote.
“Parents have been waiting a long time for this issue to come up,” said House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City), rejecting calls to delay a final vote. “It’s time.”
But Del. Marcus Simon (D-McLean-Falls Church), who attempted several parliamentary maneuvers to slow the process, said legislators may come back to rue the haste in which the measure was adopted.
“The real desire is for this to be jammed down everyone’s throat,” Simon said of Republican intentions.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” said Simon, asking for a one-year “sunset clause” to be placed on the measure.
Kilgore responded that if the health situation changes down the road, the General Assembly could address it then.
“That’s why we meet every year,” he said.
The four members of the Arlington delegation to the House of Delegates – Patrick Hope, Rip Sullivan, Alfonso Lopez and Elizabeth Bennett-Parker – joined the 44 other Democrats in voting against the measure.
The three members of the county’s state Senate contingent – Janet Howell, Barbara Favola and Adam Ebbin – each voted against the bill on Feb. 9. But the three Senate Democrats who sided with the 18 voting Republicans saw the measure to victory.
The bill in question –SB 739 – is patroned by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), and was amended by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax-Vienna) to incorporate language ending mask mandates. In an unusual twist, the majority of Senate Democrats casting ballots voted to support Petersen’s move, although most of them later voted against the bill in its entirety.
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.