This month in Virginia, my home state, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, R-Va., signed an executive order banning mask mandates in public schools — a move that produced mixed reactions from school districts across the state. Rural districts were quick to lift their mandates, while suburban districts in Northern Virginia and Richmond openly defied the governor. Seven districts went so far as to sue him for encroaching upon the authority of school districts to run themselves. Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears responded to the rebellious districts by stating the governor would withhold state funds from these districts to ensure compliance.
Further complicating matters, a group of parents in Loudoun County (yes, that Loudoun County you might have heard of) stood outside a high school before classes to protest the school’s mask mandate. Thirty students, after refusing to wear a mask, were escorted to an auditorium and given the option to work asynchronously or go home. Similar treatment was given to a 10-year-old student at a neighboring elementary school. Broadly, however, there was little to no backlash against continued mask mandates in Northern Virginia.
Youngkin’s decision to ban these mandates, instead of leaving it up to local school districts, seems ill-advised. Rural communities might have been eager to lift their mandates, but, as evidenced by the response in Northern Virginia, the majority of families in suburban communities were still in favor of mask mandates. Youngkin is politically astute enough to have foreseen the widespread backlash. Wouldn’t devolving power back to individual districts increase local communities’ agency over their COVID-19 protocols and avoid unnecessary conflict? Perhaps, but Youngkin doesn’t need to make everyone happy — just the parents who voted him in. He ran a strong campaign that promised to give parents more control over education and is making good on that promise now.
While that may be all well and good for certain parents, Youngkin’s policy has already harmed some students, and it has the potential to wreak even more havoc. At least 31 students in Loudoun were humiliated as a consequence of Youngkin’s order. One could argue that the school administrators are to blame in this case, since they physically sent the kids into auditoriums, but they were acting according to public health guidelines and the interests of a majority of their respective school’s families. By signing the order, Youngkin gave his contingent of supporters in Northern Virginia false confidence that they could wave a piece of paper and get their way. Additionally, I find it difficult to believe that wearing a mask would have been worse for those students than being yanked into an auditorium. Sure, they may not have liked having to wear a mask all day, but it certainly wouldn’t have ostracized them from their peers to do so.
I pray that case counts will be low in mask-optional schools. If Youngkin’s policy keeps people healthy, that would be great! But, if cases rise, then schools might encounter staffing issues that could precipitate temporary shifts back to remote learning, something districts around the country dealt with earlier this month. That would be unequivocally worse for students than a mask requirement due to the well documented mental health consequences of remote learning.
Beyond the issue of masks, the crusade for “parents’ rights” raises bigger, long-term concerns for public education in Virginia. On the campaign trail, Youngkin released an ad featuring Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County parent who sought to ban Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” from the school’s curriculum because of the book’s explicit content. If that ad is any indication of Youngkin’s actual political agenda, there becomes the possibility that a vocal minority of parents would gain power to impose their personal beliefs about “good” and “bad” educational materials onto entire school districts. Given the governor’s high profile, such policy could predicate larger movements in other states.
The censorship of school books is not a remote possibility, even if parents are not the driving force behind it. A school board in Tennessee recently voted to remove the graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth-grade English curriculum on the grounds that the book was too vulgar. Considering the subject matter of the book, it addresses the Holocaust, it would not make sense if the book were “clean.” If the governor follows through with his agenda of supporting parents’ rights, arguments made by Virginian parents using similar logic as that school board could do real damage to the variety and quality of literature taught in Virginia’s public schools.
Gov. Youngkin’s first executive order is not a promising sign in this regard. The order will, among other measures, “ensure that parents are empowered with open access to information on primary instructional materials utilized in any school and that fair and open policies are in place to address any concerns or complaints in a timely and respectful manner.” Not specifying what exactly those “fair and open policies” are leaves the door open for parents to potentially ban books or lessons based on their interpretation of “inherently divisive.” And, the more emboldened parents get, the more power they will have to impact the education of not only their children, but other people’s children as well.
I am grateful for my public education, especially because neither of my parents ever attempted to ban books or put me at odds with my school administrators. School is a place to learn academics, but also to socialize with other kids and learn how to grow as an individual. Children may learn different things at home and at school, but thinking about those differences independently and reconciling them with their own perspectives is an important part of growing up. No school can strip a child of what they learn from their parents, only contribute additional education. Ironically, Gov. Youngkin’s executive order on education asserts that “the foundation of our educational system should be built on teaching our students how to think for themselves.” Parents limiting the selection of books their children can read, based on what they believe, goes against this assertion. Politicians and parents challenging the authority of school districts and the development of crucial faculties in schoolchildren in the name of “parents’ rights” should ask themselves whether ostracizing their children from their peers — vis-á-vis mask mandates — or limiting the scope of their child’s education is really in their child’s best interest.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.