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Virginia judge blocks governor's executive order allowing students to opt out of mask mandate

A northern Virginia judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin's executive order that allows parents to opt their children out of locally imposed school mask requirements. 

Arlington County Circuit Court judge Louise M. DiMatteo wrote that Youngkin doesn't have the authority to override local school boards' decisions, citing a law passed when Democrats were in control last year that requires school boards to prioritize in-person instruction while abiding by COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Currently, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends "universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 years and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status." 

"While the General Assembly has granted to the Governor significant and sweeping general powers to address an emergency– it does not follow that the Governor, even in an emergency, can direct the school boards to ignore the General Assembly's deference to CDC guidance and to abandon their considered determination about what is practicable regarding those mitigation strategies," DiMatteo wrote.  

Youngkin's executive order fulfills a promise he made on the campaign trail about "parents rights," and specifically says parents of any child in "elementary or secondary school based early child care may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child's school."

It adds that parents aren't required to provide a reason for opting their child out of school, and that they shouldn't be forced to wear a mask "under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education, or any other state authority."

School boards in Fairfax County, Prince William County, Alexandria, Arlington, Richmond, Falls Church and Hampton filed a complaint against Youngkin's order after its enactment in January. 

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said they are going to appeal the court's decision and "this is just the first step in the judicial process."

"The governor will never stop fighting for parents' ability to choose what is best for their children. The governor often said that this is not a pro-mask or anti-mask debate. It's about parents knowing what's best for their child's health, and opting-out should there be a mask mandate," Porter said. 

"More voices, including from the scientific and medical community, call into question the efficacy behind a universal mask mandate for children. This is about what's best for their kid's health and who can best make that decision."

While DiMatteo wrote that a rule allowing parents to decide on whether to mask their children would cause "irreparable harm," she declined to weigh in on whether school mask mandates themselves are effective. 

"It is clear that the Governor views the costs associated with universal masking as greater than the benefits that policy may convey and endeavors to achieve a different approach to COVID transmission in the school setting," she wrote. "To take on the validity of the Governor's policy would require more than a difference of opinion at this stage and the Court has taken no evidence on these issues."

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