House education committee advances bill to ban mask mandates in school
RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A bill that would ban mask mandates in schools just cleared another hurdle in the General Assembly, advancing past the education committee Friday.
Senate Bill 739, in part, gives parents a choice not to mask their kids in school, in addition to not having to provide a reason. Despite most public commenters opposing the bill, the committee voted 12 to 10 in favor of the ban.
“If you take away the mask mandate, my children will die,” a teacher with the Richmond Education Association said.
“We need to give power back to the localities and take it away from the state,” a Henrico doctor argued. “This is not a statewide issue, and it should never be.”
If the bill is signed into law by Governor Glenn Youngkin, it will trump any effort by a school district to enforce any mask mandate. It would also render measures, like the mask transition plan adopted by the Henrico School Board Thursday, moot.
“With all due respect, I trust my district’s leadership far more than I do any of you,” a Henrico teacher said. “I’m here because I want to keep seeing my students, and I don’t want to see my students shuffled back and forth between quarantine and the classroom for the rest of the school year, which know will happen if this bill passes then.”
But Henrico doctor and state Senator Dr. Siobhan Dunnavant, believes a family’s choice is at the core of the issue.
“This issue has become politicized because political entities have made universal mandated decisions for children and families,” Dunnavant said. “The data on masks does not show any decrease transmission of COVID in schools...compared to schools that are unmasked. The medical evidence doesn’t support intervention in this case.”
A representative from the governor’s office echoed that point.
“The governor says often this is not about being pro-mask or anti-mask, this is about empowering parents,” Government Affairs Director Matt Moran said. “The governor is disappointed in the reflexive nature of the opposition from local school boards and education unions who are opposed to this bill.”
Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman says he is troubled by the latest development and believes those in favor of the bill take the pandemic seriously enough.
“I was very disappointed that hearing a physician basically minimize the science,” Fedderman said.
Fedderman fears the bill will limit the individual school systems’ ability to decide if the pandemic should worsen or the state faces future health emergencies.
“The proposal being considered today represents a major overreach of power by the state regarding local school division authority,” Fedderman said.
Though the bill is likely to pass the house next week, Fedderman says it won’t stop the teachers union from doing anything it can to challenge it.
“One thing I can assure you is that we will do everything we can to fight for our students and our educators, to ensure that the environment where our students are expected to work and the environment our students are expected to learn are optimal learning conditions, by all means, whatever it takes,” Fedderman said.
The bill, as it stands if passed, would go into effect in July. But Youngkin is expected to issue an emergency clause to make the bill effective for the remainder of the school year.
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