Virginia’s incoming governor, Glenn Youngkin, said he will lift the state’s school mask mandate and change other COVID-19 policies after taking office Saturday, Jan. 15. The change in direction is expected amid what the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association called the fifth surge of the pandemic.
Youngkin said in an interview Wednesday that Virginia would no longer require children to wear masks in schools.
“We’re gonna rescind the mandate that requires K-12 children to wear a mask to school, and we’ve been quite clear about that,” he told WTKR-TV in Norfolk, repeating a point he made while campaigning.
School districts will be able to keep mask recommendations in place, but parents can choose not to follow them, he added.
“The way that Virginia works is that the governor cannot ban mask mandates. Schools make those decisions,” he said. “We will in fact, then, also make sure that schools allow parents to exercise their rights for what’s best for their children, to opt-out of those mandates.”
Youngkin’s office did not respond to an inquiry about whether he will lift the K-12 mask mandate on his first day in office, or what he would tell parents who fear the policy change will spread the virus.
School boards in Loudoun County and Spotsylvania County are expected to hold meetings next week.
In another major announcement on the state’s response to COVID, Youngkin named an acting health commissioner in a statement late Thursday. Dr. Colin Greene will serve in the role. He’s a former Army family physician who has directed the state’s Lord Fairfax and Rappahannock-Rapidan health districts and encouraged getting vaccinated against COVID.
Virginia’s response to the coronavirus thus far has been led by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist who says science has guided his steps.
Youngkin, a Republican business executive who won by less than 2 points, has promised a new approach in the next phase of the pandemic. He has encouraged vaccination but opposed vaccine and mask mandates, emphasizing personal choice.
Here’s what else we know about Youngkin’s plans to address COVID, how the data looks now and how changes could affect Virginians.
Youngkin and the state’s next attorney general, Republican Jason Miyares, announced earlier this month that Virginia will join other Republican-led states and business groups in challenging federal vaccine requirements.
“While we believe that the vaccine is a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19, we strongly believe that the Federal government cannot impose its will and restrict the freedoms of Americans, and that Virginia is at its best when her people are allowed to make the best decisions for their families or businesses,” they said in a joint statement.
The Supreme Court halted a federal vaccine rule on Thursday requiring that employees of large businesses get vaccinated or test regularly and wear a mask on the job. The court allowed the Biden administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers.
Youngkin has repeatedly encouraged getting vaccinated and boosted but said he opposes vaccine requirements.
“I received my COVID-19 booster vaccine this morning. It’s YOUR decision, but I encourage every Virginian to join me. Together, we can help keep our communities safe,” he said in a tweet last month.
I received my COVID-19 booster vaccine this morning. It’s YOUR decision, but I encourage every Virginian to join me. Together, we can help keep our communities safe.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students 2 and older, school staff and visitors wear masks in all K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. In Virginia, as of Jan. 14, masks are required inside schools under a public health order by state health commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver.
Research continues to show that masks are an effective way to reduce COVID transmission in schools, said Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech professor and engineer who specializes in airborne transmission of infectious diseases.
“This is an especially important time for us to be wearing better masks like an N95 because we’re in the middle of a huge surge in omicron, and omicron is so much more transmissible than the other variants we’ve seen,” Marr said Thursday in video footage released by Virginia Tech. Her comments were unrelated to Youngkin’s plans.
COVID cases and hospitalizations have climbed dramatically in the state over the past month. Northam issued an emergency order earlier this week to boost hospital staff and increase capacity. Youngkin said he supported the order.
The removal of Virginia’s school mask mandate may disproportionately affect low-income residents and communities of color, said Dr. Jatia Wrighten, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Having a child home from school because of a COVID exposure may be an inconvenience for a parent who is able to work from home. For a parent working a low-wage job, having to choose between working and taking care of their child can mean a lot more.
“That’s the difference between making rent or not. Buying groceries or not,” she said.
If relaxing COVID policies in schools increases the spread of the virus and pulls kids out of classrooms more often, kids from low-income families will be separated from a key source of food and safety, Wrighten said.
“There’s an assumption being made that we all have access to WiFi, computers and food at home,” she said.
Youngkin’s selections for health officials and advisors point to his thinking on the virus.
Greene, the new governor’s pick for acting health commissioner, wrote an op-ed in May urging unvaccinated people to reconsider.
“Every person vaccinated is one less likely to suffer or die from COVID-19, and one more person that can safely hug their family and friends and enjoy the human company so badly missing in northwestern Virginia, and everywhere else,” he wrote for the Fauquier Times.
In remarks last month quoted by Rappahannock News, Greene said he expected to see the school mask mandate lifted.
“We will no longer be anything like the mask police … Republicans like to decentralize our decisions. I doubt you’re going to see the Department of Education telling you line by line exactly what to do. I think the school districts are going to have some freedom again,” the paper reported.
Youngkin also announced this week that he will be guided by an independent medical advisory team made up of doctors and public health experts. The team is led by Dr. Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins surgeon and public policy researcher who also is a frequent Fox News commentator. He is the bestselling author of “The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care — And How to Fix It.”
Makary has questioned a number of CDC decisions, including the guidance on masks in schools. He argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in August, titled “The Case Against Masks for Children,” that there was insufficient data on the usefulness of masks in schools.
Wrighten, the VCU professor, pointed out that Youngkin made education — and by extension, children — a focus of his campaign. He has said he wants to be known as “The Education Governor,” and plans to create new charter schools, respect teachers’ personal beliefs about LGBTQ issues and ban the teaching of critical race theory.
Wrighten, a mother of three, said the new governor could serve the state’s kids by keeping strong COVID measures in place.
“This is something concrete that would actually protect children,” she said.