Virginia’s General Assembly moved swiftly Wednesday to put the final legislative touches on a bill that bans local school systems from imposing mask mandates on students, joining a number of other states that have taken similar measures.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin moved even more swiftly, holding a signing ceremony just hours after the bill’s passage Wednesday afternoon with hundreds of supporters and school children on the Capitol steps, including a school-age girl who said she’d been suspended nine times for not wearing a mask.
“Since Day 1, we have advocated, we have stood together for parents’ rights to make decisions for their children,” Youngkin said, drawing cheers.
The legislature passed the bill on Monday; Youngkin then amended it to add an emergency clause so that it could take effect before the typical July 1 enactment date for new legislation.
Under the amendments added by Youngkin, local systems must allow students to opt-out of mask mandates beginning March 1.
Several states across the nation, including New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut, have taken steps in recent days to eliminate school mask mandates.
In Virginia, there was a brief discussion Wednesday on the House of Delegates floor about whether it’s constitutional to enact legislation on an emergency basis by a simple majority vote.
Typically it requires a 4/5th supermajority of each body of the General Assembly to enact a law on an emergency basis for it to take immediate effect. But if the legislature passes a bill and the governor amends it, such amendments are adopted by a simple majority vote.
Democratic Del. Marcus Simon found a 2010 precedent from former Republican Speaker Bill Howell indicating that governors can’t do an end-run around the supermajority rules simply by adding an emergency clause amendment.
But Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert overruled Simon’s objection. Gilbert cited numerous examples in the past two years when then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, amended bills to add an emergency clause and the legislature accepted them on a majority vote.
Simon has said he expects a court challenge on the question.
In an interview with Fox News after the bill passed, Youngkin noted that Democrats were key to the bill’s passage and that he was pleased to see it draw bipartisan support.
“If you choose your child shouldn’t wear a mask, you can make that decision, and if you want your child to wear a mask, you can make that decision as well. And that’s what Virginia is all about,” he said.
Youngkin won election in November on a campaign platform that emphasized parental choice in education. On his first day in office last month, he signed an executive order ending a statewide mask mandate in schools imposed by Northam.
Youngkin’s order also sought to bar local school systems from imposing mask mandates on their own, but it got bogged down in legal challenges. Local school boards sued, saying it usurps their authority, and an Arlington County judge issued a temporary injunction barring the order from taking effect.
At that point, moderate Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen joined with Republicans to pass legislation giving parents the final decision on whether their children wear masks to school.
Petersen and two other Democrats joined with Republicans to push the legislation through the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 21-19 advantage.
The final passage Wednesday in the GOP-controlled House came on a party-line 52-48 vote.