RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — Masks will be optional in all Virginia schools starting no later than March 1 after the Virginia House of Delegates voted to include an emergency amendment from Gov. Glenn Youngkin to a bill that already passed in the General Assembly.

The vote on Senate Bill 739 was 52-48 on Wednesday, Feb. 16. Youngkin signed the bill around 3 p.m. that day.

The bill was previously approved by both houses of the legislature, but originally had a date of July 1 for masks to be optional. One of the amendments says localities must now comply by no later than March 1.

Another amendment passed Wednesday clarifies the governor still has emergency powers to reinstate a mask mandate if needed, WFXR’s Capitol Bureau reporter Jackie DeFusco reports.

“Since day one, we have worked to empower Virginia parents who want to have a voice in the upbringing and education of their children. This is a defining moment and decisive victory for parents and kids across the Commonwealth. We are reaffirming that parents matter by signing SB739, effectively giving parents the ability to opt-out of school mask mandates,” Youngkin said in a news release after signing the bill.

Although the bill passed with bipartisan support, many Democrats still strongly oppose the measure. Del. Marcia Price, a Democrat who represents Newport News and Hampton, calls this bill an overstep of state power.

“Taking the decisions out of the hands of those that were elected at the local level to make those decisions, I think is an overreach of our power,” said Price. “I just really hope that they got their calculations right that this will not be putting actual lives at risk but my fear is that it is.”

State Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) agrees.

“What happened was now you can let politics take the place of the school board,” said Spruill. “That’s a dangerous thing to do. I’m real surprised that they would do that. Doesn’t matter which party. We have an elected school board. They know their region. They know their areas.”

The legislation passed by the General Assembly backs up Youngkin’s day-one executive order on the subject. The order was met with a flurry of legal challenges, including a lawsuit by 13 parents in Chesapeake. This lawsuit called the order unconstitutional. The parents also worried how the decision away from the local level would effect disabled and at-risk students.

WFXR’s sister station, WAVY, spoke with Kevin Martingayle, the attorney who represents the Chesapeake parents.

“I think that’s the problem, it’s a one size fits all solution to situations that vary not only in individual communities but in individual schools all across Virginia,” said Martingayle. “It’s removing the power of discretion which is something very important to give to school boards and principals. We know that some schools are designed to educate and protect individuals who have various disabilities. What does this new law do for them? It appears to do nothing for them.”

In light of this legislative action, Martingayle says his clients have not made a decision whether or not to move forward with the lawsuit.

“Regardless of whatever the Chesapeake parents do, I think that the General Assembly and the governor are setting themselves up for some real problems if they continue to ignore laws that protect induvial who have disabilities. That’s a real big mistake and it could have real serious legal consequences for everybody involved,” Martingayle said.

WFXR’s sister station also reached out to Hampton Public Schools — which was one of the school districts to join a lawsuit against Youngkin’s executive order — about this new law.

A spokesperson with Hampton Public Schools sent WAVY this statement:

“We have been following SB 739 closely. Our current HCS layered health mitigation strategies are in place, including our face mask protocols/requirements. As we are currently following the law (SB 1303) in this regard, we will adhere to any new law. We will provide timely communication to our staff and families as any updates are made to our HCS 2021-2022 Health Mitigation Strategies Plan. In regard to the pending legal action, we intend to follow the recommendation of our legal counsel.”

Wednesday night, the Virginia NAACP released a statement of disapproval over the bill.

“It is disappointing to the Virginia NAACP that Senator Chap Petersen would put forth such an amendment that will knowingly harm the health and safety of our children, teaching staff, and staff personnel in schools,”
said Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr. “His sly tactics will now increase the odds that hundreds of thousands of Virginia’s children may spread and contract COVID-19 while in school.”

For a list of the current mask policies at school districts around southwest and central Virginia, click here.