Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bill Wednesday that allows parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates.
The bill, Senate Bill 739, requires schools to comply no later than March 1 and also keeps schools open five days a week for in-person instruction.
The bill arrives amid a fight over Youngkin’s executive order that effectively banned school districts from mandating masks. That effort was caught up in a flurry of legal challenges, and it’s unclear how the new law will impact the ongoing litigation.
“Today we are reestablishing and restoring power back to parents. But we are also reestablishing our expectations that we will get back to normal. And this is the path,” Youngkin said ahead of signing the bill at the state Capitol steps with a group of schoolchildren and parents behind him.
Virginia lawmakers gave final passage to the legislation on Monday, with the House of Delegates approving the bill on a party-line vote and Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert taking the symbolic step of hand-delivering it to Youngkin.
Youngkin then made several tweaks to the bill, including adding an emergency clause that allows the legislation to go into effect immediately. The governor’s recommendations were approved by the legislature on Tuesday.
The bill, introduced in January by Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, had passed the state Senate last week, with three Democrats joining Republicans in voting yes.
Youngkin had campaigned on rolling back Virginia’s Covid-19 restrictions and giving parents more agency in their children’s education, but the order he signed on his first day in office was met with lawsuits from Virginia school districts and a group of parents who wanted the mask requirements to remain in place.
Enforcement of his order was placed on hold by a state judge earlier this month after a group of school districts sued the state to keep their mandates in place.
At least three suits related to the executive order are making their way through state courts, including one filed earlier this week by a group of parents in Fairfax County who had asked a judge to bar the school district from enforcing its mask mandate.
A hearing in another suit brought by a group of parents in Loudoun County opposed to their district’s mask mandate is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
Asked about schools that choose to ignore and continue mandating masks, Youngkin said, “there really isn’t the ability to do that.”
“This bill is very clear. Any authority, whether it’s a local school board or a local board of supervisors or, by the way, the state government that wants to mandate masks, then parents will have the ability to opt out if they think that’s the best thing for their child,” he told Fox News prior to the ceremony to sign the bill.
Other states, including liberal-led ones that enforced strict mask mandates, have made plans to drop their statewide mask requirements, as Covid cases have been declining in their areas.
Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and Oregon also recently announced timelines for the end of their states’ school mask mandates.
Many counties and cities, however, have their own indoor mask mandates and many individual school districts still require students to wear masks even in the absence of a statewide mandate.
Virginia Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, the Democratic leader in the House, on Monday argued that Youngkin is not giving local school districts the final say on mask mandates in the same way that Democratic leaders in other states are.
She argued that the legislation “ties the hands of local schools” and would make Virginia more in step with Florida, which has punished school districts that kept mask mandates without allowing parents to opt out.
“If this bill passes, and it pains me to say this, well, welcome to Florida,” she said on the House floor Monday before the bill was passed.
This story has been updated with additional developments and reaction.
CNN’s Virginia Langmaid, David Shortell and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.