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FCPS keeps universal masking for now, but acknowledges state law allowing opt-outs

Irving Middle School students wear face masks in class (via FCPS)

Face masks will still be required in Fairfax County Public Schools when students return on Tuesday (Feb. 22).

However, the school system acknowledged in a message to the community today (Friday) that universal masking may come to an end soon. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed Senate Bill 739 into law on Wednesday (Feb. 16), allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates starting March 1.

“We recognize our legal obligations and will maintain our commitment to the health and safety of our students and staff,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand wrote.

With COVID-19 transmission declining but still high in Fairfax County, as of today, Brabrand noted that universal masking and other mitigation strategies remain in place.

Like other Northern Virginia districts, FCPS had resisted pressure from some parents and the state to end its mask requirement, arguing that it’s a necessary tool to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The school board joined a lawsuit last month to prevent Youngkin from enforcing an executive order that prohibited local schools from requiring masks. An Arlington County Circuit Court judge let Fairfax County and the other suing school systems keep universal masking in place while the legal process plays out, but the new state law has essentially rendered the lawsuit moot.

With S.B. 739 looking likely to pass the Virginia General Assembly last week, FCPS announced a plan on Feb. 10 to roll back its Covid health protocols, including by making masks optional once community transmission drops to a moderate level.

Brabrand says FCPS staff have started planning to roll back protocols in the hopes that case rates will continue to drop. He also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to update its mask guidance for schools early next week.

“We will share updates as we receive them,” he said.

We ask everyone to do their part to keep our schools safe places to learn and to respect our educators and staff who are doing everything possible to keep our schools open and safe. Please monitor for symptoms and stay home when sick. Practice good hygiene, including covering coughs and sneezes, and washing hands frequently. We encourage vaccination for all eligible children and adults as the best way to prevent serious illness and reduce absences from in-person learning.

We also ask everyone to do their part to keep our schools positive and uplifting places to learn. As we finish this school year working our way through what is hopefully the late stages of the pandemic, let’s do so with respect, kindness, and support for all.

Though FCPS indicates that it intends to comply with the new state law, county leaders have expressed frustration with what they view as the General Assembly’s encroachment on the authority of local school boards — an argument that was the basis of the school boards’ lawsuit.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay reiterated on WAMU’s The Politics Hour today his stance that no one knows school operations better than school boards.

McKay said he hasn’t spoken to state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th), who represents the City of Fairfax, Vienna, and parts of Fairfax County. Petersen introduced the amendment to S.B. 739 that added the optional-masks provision to a bill that was originally focused on in-person learning.

“It’s the law now. It’s going to be implemented,” McKay said. “We will deal with it and deal with it effectively, but it’s just not a way to govern…telling a school system what to do.”

In FFXnow’s extremely informal poll, 81% of nearly 600 respondents support masks becoming optional in schools by March 1, in accordance with the state law.

Photo via FCPS

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