RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill to end school mask mandates in Virginia moved forward in the House of Delegates on Wednesday.
The legislation from Del. Amanda Batten (R-James City) was amended to align with a Senate bill sponsored by state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico). Sen. Dunnavant’s bill, which requires public school boards to offer in-person learning, was amended Tuesday to include an opt-out allowing parents to decide whether to send their children to class with a mask or not.
Del. Batten’s bill was approved in the Virginia House Education Committee on a 12-10 vote. Unlike Sen. Dunnavant’s bill, no Democrats backed Batten’s legislation on Wednesday.
“I think this bill further reflects the intent and desire of parents and families to ensure their child is in school every single day,” Batten said before the vote. “We’ve seen the adverse effects of online learning for quite a while now and we believe that children need to be in school.”
Batten faced questions from Democrats on the panel who made their opposition to the bill clear during the hearing. House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said the measure concerned her “on many fronts.”
“[The bill] basically takes away the local school board’s ability to enforce a local mask requirement when the community spread is high or due to any unforeseen issues.”
Filler-Corn, who served as House Speaker when Democrats controlled the 100-member chamber, pressed Batten on her bill, saying it doesn’t assure that students would be protected if mask mandates were banned. She claimed that passing the legislation would put children “in jeopardy.”
“The bill is very straightforward. It simply gives parents the option. That’s where we are right now,” Batten responded. “There’s obviously been a lot of back and forth on this lately and it simply clarifies that it’s at the parent’s discretion.”
Aimee Guidera, Youngkin’s secretary-designee of education, spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the administration. She said the argument over the issue was misguided.
“This is not about masks. This is about parents’ rights to have judgment. They know their children best,” Guidera told the committee.
Other Democrats pointed to concerns over the children who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine or who have health risks that would make them less safe if masks weren’t required. When asked how schools would ensure those students were protected, Guidera claimed growing evidence shows that masks aren’t as effective as once believed but individual schools would take steps to help those children.
Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in September found school districts without universal masking rules “were more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Guidera said she feels it’s time to make these changes, citing her own concerns over mental health and the negative impact masks have had on childhood development.
Hours after the committee voted, the Virginia Senate passed Sen. Dunnavant’s amended bill. With the House under GOP control, the legislation is expected to get through the General Assembly and reach Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk.
8News has learned that Youngkin intends to add an emergency clause to the Senate bill once it reaches his desk so it can take effect immediately. The General Assembly would have to vote on the legislation again if the governor makes such a move.
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