The Virginia Senate passed a bill that will allow parents to opt their children out of wearing masks at school. Democratic Senators Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) and Lynwood Lewis Jr. (D-Accomack) joined with Republicans to pass SB 739 after the Senate debated the bill for over an hour on Wednesday.

Bill sponsor Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), an OB/GYN, said during the debate, “Two years into this pandemic, keeping unproven measures in place is no longer justifiable. We must evolve; science doesn’t stand still. We did masks and boxes and other things because we thought maybe they might help, but they have not proven to do so. I will say further that you have before you a conflict between two constitutional priorities in Virginia. One is that school boards get to decide policy for their districts. But the other is that we are a parental rights state. You’re going to have to choose which authority, ceded by the Constitution, you’re going to stand by today.”

She continued, “I would say that the most egregious politicization of this situation is the message that we’ve gotten from supposedly trusted experts that have created the kind of anxiety and conflicts we see today. And that is the suggestion that if you don’t wear your mask, you harm me. I must therefore control you. Now, not only is that not accurate scientifically, it’s un-American.”

Petersen has been arguing against masking and distributing an article questioning the effectiveness of masks in school from The Atlantic in the General Assembly.

He said, “One thing I’ve learned is childhood is a moment. I mean, you turn around and it’s gone, and a child grows up. And when a child has lost two years to this, not based on science, I’m sorry, but based on somebody’s construction of science, which, frankly is drifting away, that’s a tragedy, and we can end that tragedy. We have the ability to end it. Now again, this is not, I don’t think, going to be the final vote on this bill during the session. Maybe it will, but I will say this: we’re going to resolve the mask wars during this session. They’re going to be over. We’re not going to come back and deal with them anymore.”

On Tuesday, he proposed an amendment to SB 739, which was originally focused on in-person learning, to include the mask-optional clause. Although he and the Republicans alone could have passed the amendment, nearly half of Senate Democrats supported the change. Most of the Democrats supporting the amendment voted against the overall bill Wednesday.

Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said that the political discourse around masking and vaccines was likely to have consequences for other kinds of disease outbreaks, since it removed school board authority to institute mask mandates. He said that the bill needed something to keep it from being applied too broadly – metrics, or a time restriction.

“But what Virginia really needs is some clarity,” Surovell said. “Virginia needs clarity today so all this conflict will stop. And I just want to say: you know, I saw the governor taking credit for this yesterday. And that really disappointed me because I don’t think he deserves a lot of credit. By dropping an executive order in violation of Virginia law, all he did was create more chaos.”

Surovell said that the legislature, not the governor, passes laws.

“And that’s the way this should have proceeded, which is kind of what we’re doing right now. And the reason I put a green [yes] vote on the mask amendment is because I think we need to have a debate and some conclusion to the mask discussion. And so I’ll be voting red today but I hope when we see some amendments to this bill, or maybe when it comes through from the House, that we can get this language straight, because it needs more work. And I think if this language is worked on further, we might be able to get to a solution that is more bipartisan instead of one that continues to be politicized.”

Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned on ending mandates, and the passage of SB 739 is an unusual win for the Republican governor granted by Senate Democrats.

He issued press releases praising the votes Tuesday and Wednesday, and announced on Twitter that he would appear on Fox News with Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening.

“I promised that as governor, Virginia would move forward with an agenda that empowers parents on the upbringing, education, and care of their own children. I am proud to continue to deliver on that promise. This vote also shows that school boards who are attacking their own students are stunningly detached from reality. It’s time to put kids first and get back to normal,” Youngkin said in the Wednesday press release.

House of Delegates Advances Companion

The House of Delegates Education Committee advanced a companion to the bill on Wednesday morning. The committee amended Delegate Amanda Batten’s (R-York) HB 1272 to match the updated version of SB 739.

“The amendment that came through yesterday, I think, was unexpected by most of us,” Batten said when Delegate Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) asked if the bill was introduced on behalf of the administration.

Education Chair Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) said the bill was meant to address misinterpretation of SB 1303, a bipartisan, full-time in-person learning bill that included a clause requiring schools to follow CDC guidance.

“It was not intended to give school boards the power to ignore governor’s executive orders,” Davis said. “I think what we’re seeing is the courts’ misinterpretation of SB 1303 when it comes to mask mandates, so that is exactly what it does. We’re not laying down policy. It is clarifying what I think was legislative intent.”

Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) said, “I really liked the underlying bill, because I do want kids to be in school. That’s why I helped shape the language on 1303 last year.”

VanValkenburg noted that during the Omicron wave some schools struggled to stay open due to the number of teachers who were out due to COVID-19.

“I think we should be doing everything we can to make sure schools are open,” he said. “We don’t know where we’re going to be. I hope this is endemic. I hope we’re at the point where we can just live with it. I don’t like that we’re handcuffing ourselves here, because at the end of the day, to go back to my point and to conclude, schools being open aren’t any good if nobody’s in them. Thank you. So I would hope we would vote no in the moment.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].