School district officials who oversee hundreds of schools in Virginia are actively defying their new Republican governor’s efforts to tamp down COVID-19 mitigation measures in the state.
The backlash is similar to what we saw play out in Texas and Florida when Republican Govs. Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis enacted similar executive orders late last year, attempting to block individual schools and municipalities from creating their own policies for combatting the pandemic.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) began his term as governor as any right-wing Republican who rose to prominence in the Trump or (hardly) post-Trump era might: he signed executive orders on his first day in office last week barring school districts from enforcing mask-related policies for students and staff under their purview. Some of the largest school districts in the commonwealth shot back almost immediately, with Arlington Public Schools declaring its mask mandate would remain in effect for in-person learning, regardless of the governor’s statewide order.
It’s all a bit of déjà vu for those of us who have been following how these anti-mask mandates have played out in schools in red states for some time.
Youngkin’s response was similar to that of DeSantis and Abbott: He threatened he would use state resources to force compliance. In Florida that bark was worse than the bite, at least initially. The state’s top education official did make good on a threat to pull funding from some districts whose board members voted for universal masking policies for their students, defying the governor’s orders. The Florida state education arm opened “investigations” into the districts, but ultimately only cut funding in the ballpark of the defiant school board members’ salaries for some of the school systems that opposed DeSantis — barely thousands of dollars in some cases. The issue is still being litigated in the courts, even after Florida’s Republican state legislature codified DeSantis’ order into state law in November.
Also in November, a federal judge overturned Abbott’s rule in Texas after a statewide group that advocates for students with disabilities filed suit, arguing discrimination against the state’s most vulnerable children. The judge agreed. The ruling gave local officials the liberty to put in place mitigation rules that make the most sense for their communities. The DOJ and the Department of Education’s civil right’s arms have also had a hand in combatting Republican governors’ orders in states like Texas, as well as Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. The DOJ has also launched a new system for tracking threats of violence against school personnel over COVID-19 mitigation rules, as well as other GOP-fueled outrage on issues like critical race theory.
Thus far in Virginia, at least six of the commonwealth’s largest school districts have announced they won’t be following the new Republican governor’s order and will maintain universal masking policies for student, staff and visitors: Henrico Country Public Schools, Arlington Public Schools, Alexandria City Public Schools, Fairfax County Public School and Richmond Public Schools.
We’ll keep an eye on how this plays out at the state and federal level. But it was predictable. Youngkin weaponized what he considered to be widespread parental frustration with school pandemic-related policies during his 2020 gubernatorial bid against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. And the Republican Party at-large has noticed. Seizing on Youngkin’s success in an otherwise historically blue state, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has since indicated that GOP candidates’ platforms that include faux culture war issues similar to Youngkin’s could prove to be fruitful in the Midterms.
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