Seven school districts have sued newly-elected Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin over his executive order ending a statewide school mask mandate, one of several executive orders Youngkin has signed that have undercut his "moderate" campaign image.
During his campaign against former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, Youngkin sought to distance himself from former President Donald Trump and was described as a "moderate conservative" in the mainstream press. He has gone full Ron DeSantis after taking office, issuing nearly a dozen executive orders on his first day that hit many of the biggest conservative culture-war issues.
Youngkin, a former private equity executive, issued an order barring school mask mandates, despite vowing on the campaign trail that he would allow local governments to decide their mask policies. He also issued orders banning employer vaccine requirements and the teaching of "critical race theory" — which is not taught in public schools — and slashing government regulations. On Monday, Youngkin announced a special tip line for parents to report teachers who discuss "divisive" topics in the classroom. He has also nominated former Trump EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who decimated federal environmental protections, to be his secretary of natural resources.
But as with DeSantis and other governors who have sought to ban schools from requiring masks, his first slate of executive actions has already been met with legal challenges. Seven school districts that serve a combined 350,000 students filed a lawsuit in state court challenging Youngkin's mask mandate ban.
The lawsuit "defends the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff," the districts said in a statement to The New York Times.
The suit challenges Youngkin's authority to "unilaterally override" the authority of school boards under both the Virginia constitution and state law.
"Without today's action, school boards are placed in a legally untenable position — faced with an executive order that is in conflict with the constitution and state law," the lawsuit says. It goes on to argue that schools have "students and staff members who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19, and for whom an infection with the virus could lead to serious illness or death."
Youngkin also faces a lawsuit from 13 parents, arguing that his executive order "rejects the recommendations of the CDC" and violates state law.
In all, 58 of the state's 130 school districts have either filed lawsuits or pledged to keep their mask mandates in place, according to The Washington Post.
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Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told the Times that the governor was "disappointed that these school boards are ignoring parents' rights" and is committed to fighting the lawsuit.
"They haven't been recognizing the rights of parents all along," Youngkin told conservative radio host John Fredericks on Monday. "So I'm not surprised at all to hear these reactions from school boards that have consistently prioritized bureaucrats and politicians over the rights of parents."
Youngkin framed the issue in partisan terms, arguing that public opinion on mask mandates is "moving against the left liberals." He later acknowledged in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he has consulted with other Republican governors as he begins his term. Hewitt mentioned DeSantis, and although Youngkin did not confirm who he has spoken to, he said, "It's been a great support network. And what we're seeing, of course, is states led by Republicans outperforming states who are led by Democrats."
It's a remarkably quick turnaround for a candidate whose campaign vowed just before the election that Youngkin "would not go quite as far as DeSantis" and would "leave the policy decision about masks up to local school districts and 'strongly encourage' them to let individual parents decide." Even after his win, Youngkin said that "localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works."
Fredericks, who served on both of Trump's presidential campaigns, told the Post that he has been pleasantly surprised that Youngkin has been far more right-wing than advertised when he was seeking votes.
"He's Trump in a red vest," Fredericks, referring to the vest the former private equity exec wore on the campaign trail. "It's exceeded everybody's expectations. … From the beginning of his campaign to the Saturday he put his hand on the Bible and took the oath of office, I was his biggest skeptic. And now, two weeks into his administration, I'm his biggest supporter."
Fredericks said he believes Youngkin went further right after backlash from Trump supporters.
"He got blasted by the whole Trump-ecosystem base," he told the Post. "If he wants to run for something else or keep his coalition together, you simply can't alienate us."
But the sudden right turn could alienate far more people. A poll last fall found that 71% of Virginians supported a statewide school mask mandate and 57% said they would support a full indoor mask mandate for everyone.
Eileen Filler-Corn, the Democratic leader in the Virginia House of Delegates, on Tuesday said she stands with school districts challenging the governor and called on Youngkin to "rescind his unconstitutional executive order."
"Youngkin claims to fight for the rights of parents, but this rushed directive is a clear political stunt that has thrown families, teachers and schools into turmoil with little guidance," she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "With coronavirus cases rising and our hard-fought recovery still so fragile, Youngkin is putting the health and education of our children at risk to satisfy his political base. That is unacceptable."
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