Dear <<First Name>>:
In my last email, I described how your state legislature reached the midpoint of this session, known as "Crossover."
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the House of Delegates and State Senate met for very long sessions to take up all the remaining bills in each chamber.
Among the hundreds of bills introduced this year, none has drawn more attention from the public than the one dealing with keeping our public schools open during this ongoing pandemic.
Bills on School Opening and Masks
Senate Bill 739 and House Bill 1272, introduced by Senator Siobhan Dunnavant and Delegate Amanda Batten, respectively, were designed to replace Senate Bill 1303 from last year which is scheduled to expire in August of this year.
SB 1303 passed the General Assembly in March 2021, during the height of the COVID pandemic, when schools throughout Virginia were adopting inconsistent policies on when and how to offer in-person versus virtual learning for students.
That bill required all schools in Virginia to remain open for in-person instruction unless COVID transmission in a particular school building is so dangerous that the local school must require a virtual learning option.
Among other provisions, SB 1303 also required each school division to follow, "to the maximum extent practicable," mitigation strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the transmission of COVID in classrooms.
Remember that this bill was drafted at a time when students were not yet eligible for vaccines, and most adults including teachers, school bus drivers, and others who work on campus did not have ample access to vaccines.
Therefore, the primary CDC mitigation strategies at that time meant requiring indoor masking for all students and social distancing between students.
Last year, I voted in support of SB 1303 which passed both chambers on overwhelming bipartisan majority votes.
This year, I had planned to support SB 739 and its companion HB 1272 which would have continued the requirement for local schools to provide in-person instructions after last year's SB 1303 was set to expire this August.
Unfortunately, at the last minute, the State Senate made a drastic change to this bill which transformed the purpose of the bill from one dealing with classroom instructions only to one that made masks optional for students.
You may recall that in January, Governor Glenn Youngkin issued Executive Order #2 which made masks optional for students, and for parents to override decisions made by local government authorities on issues relating to public safety concerns for all students.
In an earlier email, I wrote that I do not believe the Governor, through unilateral executive decision, can change these operating policies of local schools.
Under the Virginia Constitution, the legal authority for governing public education lies with the General Assembly as the state's primary law making body, and with local school boards who are elected independently to regulate their local schools.
That is why so many parties immediately filed lawsuits against the Governor's executive action.
While these legal challenges were pending, the State Senate inserted an amendment to SB 739 which stated that "the parent of any child enrolled in a public elementary or secondary school, or in any school-based early childhood care and education program, may elect for such child to not wear a mask while on school property."
The Senate amendment further stated that a parent making such an election shall not be required to provide a reason for the child's health, and that no student shall suffer any adverse disciplinary or academic consequences due to the parent's decision.
In short, the Senate amendment would codify Gov. Youngkin's unlawful executive order.
While I supported the underlying bill to keep schools open for in-person instruction, I could no longer support this bill that added this anti-masking amendment.
My reason is simple, and it has nothing to do with whether I like masks or not.
I believe the decision to require masks for students should remain with local school boards working in consultation with public health experts, not with individual parents.
My wife and I are parents of two children. Both of our kids were in high school when COVID struck, and both suffered immeasurably from the negative impacts of school closing, missing out on classroom interactions, extracurricular activities, football games, proms, graduations, etc.
My wife and I also agree with the Governor that parents should be involved in their children's education. We have been active in the PTA, volunteered at schools, served in leadership roles with school clubs, and continue to be involved in every aspect of their education today.
But as much as I care about my kids and their fellow students, as a parent, I am responsible solely for the health and safety of my own kids, and not of those of all students on campus.
As a parent, it is my choice to let my kids do certain things on campus, such as what to wear to school, what to eat for lunch, what clubs to join, and which friends to hang out with.
But if my decision as one parent impacts the health of other kids, then I do not believe that my own personal preference should outweigh the harm to others.
When the decision to wear a mask or not is part of our community's collective effort to prevent the spread of an airborne disease such as COVID, I cannot agree that a parent should have the final say on a public health policy matter which impacts the lives of other children.
I entrust those collective policy decisions to local authorities who oversee our schools. This is how our system of government is set out so that different levels of government regulate different aspects of our society.
When the Senate bill came to the House floor, my colleagues engaged in vigorous debates around the issues. I spoke against this amendment before casting my no votes on both the Senate and House versions.
In my floor speech, I shared my thoughts about my role as a parent, and then quoted an exchange between a Republican U.S. Senator from Louisiana and the TV host on a recent episode of "Fox News Sunday":
Fox TV host: "We've seen some major battles playing out over who has final say on mask mandates for the children, schools or the governors. In your home state, school mask mandate decisions are left up to local school districts. Is that the right approach, Senator, or should governors be able to supersede local authorities as we've seen recently in states like Virginia?"
Senator Bill Cassidy: "I'm a conservative. I think that he or she who governs closest to those governed governs best. So, I do think that should be a local decision. I say that as a rocked-ribbed conservative."
I agree with this conservative Senator that decisions such as school mask mandates should be left to the local school boards, and not to state level authorities.
That is why I opposed these bills, which passed the House along straight party line votes of 52-48.
The Senate bill was sent to the Governor immediately who then sent amendments to make the bill go into effect immediately. I voted against the Governor's "emergency" amendment which also passed the House on a party line vote.
One of the Governor's amendments requires every local school district to comply with the anti-masking mandate policy by March 1.
I hope and pray that COVID transmission is low by the time this new policy goes into effect on March 1. I also urge parents to be mindful of all students on campus as they decide whether their children will wear masks or not.
I will admit that I lost this political battle with the Governor and with those who support his divisive school agenda. But I believe that caring for each other remains our common value, and I hope that all Virginians will continue to do all we can to keep our Commonwealth safe from COVID.
Delegate Mark Keam