Virginia’s new governor, Glenn Youngkin, is just a week into his term, but already he has reminded the nation what the first weeks of the Trump administration looked like: chaos.
On his first day in office, Youngkin issued an executive order granting parents of the commonwealth’s 1.5 million schoolchildren the ability to exempt their kids from their school districts’ mask policies if they so choose. Immediately after the order was signed, several superintendents announced plans to keep their mask requirements. Virginia’s lieutenant governor announced that Youngkin could pull funding from any district refusing to comply, although nobody could say whether that was legal. Parents sued to reverse the order, and then seven school boards filed a lawsuit claiming the masks-optional policy violates both the Virginia Constitution, which provides that “the supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board,” and a 2021 state law that requires school systems to follow federal health guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommends all students, K–12, wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
On Friday, a Virginia mom was charged in Page County with threatening to bring “every single gun loaded” to her kids’ school on Monday. (She apologized, claiming that she was speaking of metaphorical firearms.) That district ramped up security measures on Monday morning, a day when the chaos spilled out across the state: There were dueling rallies between anti-mask parents and school boards demanding compliance. In Loudoun County, students refusing to wear masks were directed to school auditoriums where they did virtual work online. Some parents pulled their kids from school. Creators of the website Mask Off Monday instructed parents to send kids to school prepared to defy the school guidance with these instructions: “You may feel the need to explain your mask issues further. Resist that feeling. When it comes to the law, explanation is weakness.” The site goes on to explain: “It’s time to get back to normal life, and the time to push is right now. Fear has ruled our lives for far too long. No ‘health authority’ will give you the all clear after all of the new power they have seized and wielded. You must turn off the television, and take it for yourself.”
There’s no point debating who in the complicated mess of parents, schools, local school boards, states, or federal agencies should have the last word on public health measures in a peaking pandemic. That complicated legal question, which will presumably be resolved in the courts, has been temporarily obviated by the choice to say that the wearing of masks is an exigent denial of individual liberty, akin to the wearing of yellow stars in Nazi Germany, and the governor’s decision to empower parents to therefore refuse it. Youngkin, who ran as a “moderate,” entered office with a ban on the teaching of critical race theory (which is not currently taught in K–12 schools in Virginia) and other “divisive” topics. Youngkin’s attorney general has just reversed the state’s position on Roe v. Wade, arguing for it to be overturned this spring at the Supreme Court. This past weekend the AG also fired UVA’s counsel, who was on leave working as the top investigator for the U.S. House panel investigating the Jan. 6 riot—insisting this was not a politically motivated act but not offering any other reason for it.
As Bill Scher notes here, Youngkin changed his tune on mask mandates only after winning his election (by a 50.6 margin). As recently as last fall, his campaign told the Washington Post that Youngkin “would not go quite as far as DeSantis,” and that as governor, Youngkin would “leave the policy decision about masks up to local school districts and ‘strongly encourage’ them to let individual parents decide.” Immediately after his election, Youngkin told WRIC-TV, “Localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works.” As of September, when COVID numbers were about a sixth of what they are today, a Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Virginia’s registered voters were in favor of the mandate while Monmouth University reported 67 percent support. That’s actually pretty impressive consensus as measured in 2022 units. One can see why it would become essential to show leadership by opposing it.
After big-footing his way into a crisis, on Saturday, Youngkin tried to tweet his way out of it with vague platitudes that ultimately contradicted themselves and only added to the confusion: “While the legal process continues on the parental opt out of mask mandates for their children in schools, I urge everyone to love your neighbor, to listen to school principals, and to trust the legal process.” Except “listen to your principal” ends up sounding quite a bit like “listen to your principal for now,” particularly when it is paired with “trust the legal process.” Youngkin made that subtext text when he said, on a Richmond radio broadcast Monday morning, that parents should, “Listen to a principal today. And I know that there are some school systems that are doing things that are inconsistent with respecting the rights of parents. … Let’s respect it right now and let this legal process play out.” Having seeded the conflict himself, Youngkin now insisted that “This is not a moment for us to forget that we’re all in the same boat and love one another.”
The problem here is that Youngkin got the order wrong. He was supposed to start with love and respect for school principals, and then build up to rancor and division and threats of violence—it’s so much harder to go in the other direction, as he’s tried to do. Bottling up the outrage after the gun-waving phase proves difficult—ask Donald Trump. By the time parents are marching their kids into schools with copies of a hastily crafted executive order and the directive to refuse to listen to anyone in authority, “love your neighbor” is a fossilized relic of a forgotten time. Pundits are asking whether Youngkin is naïve or simply fanning the flames, but honestly, it doesn’t much matter. Just as Donald Trump opted to enter office in a flurry of half-baked, half-legal orders and tweets, Youngkin decided that leadership and “healing” demand empowering parents to become a law unto themselves, then walking all that back after the damage is done.
I’m hardly the first to worry that states racing to enact ever more insane incursions on educational freedom and a teacher’s right to speak and book bans are destined to end in reprisals and mass resignations and bounty schemes and threats of violence. At this point, I must assume that such vigilantism is the point. Parents are frayed and starved for leadership. Some leaders have realized that the inflaming of tensions around masks garners votes. The problem is it also destabilizes government authority. Youngkin didn’t just turn student against student, parent against parent, or pit principals against educators and states against federal rules with the stroke of a pen the day he was sworn in. He personally modeled contempt for authority—he encouraged it and rewarded it. He did so in the full knowledge that he was essentially deputizing furious parents to follow only the kinds of laws they liked and conscripting their kids into participating. Here is an excerpt, from reporters around the state, tracking how all that went:
Loudoun County mother Heather Jermacams said her daughter was moved into a separate classroom after she didn’t wear a mask. Video shows Jermacams shouting into a phone, refusing to pick up her daughter.
“No, I am not picking my child up. She has an IEP, and I will call my lawyer next. She has an IEP and needs to be in her classroom. Do you understand me?” she said.
Across Loudoun County Public Schools, about 60 students refused to wear masks on Monday, the district said. Most were at Woodgrove High School, where parents confronted the principal and demanded to know the plan for educating students who weren’t wearing masks.
“Please, we will make sure that to the extent that we possibly can, given the circumstances, they have everything they need,” the principal said.
Clint and Erin Thomas said their two daughters at Woodgrove High sat in an auditorium without a teacher for most of the morning.
“They didn’t have a plan to actually have these kids start school on time,” Clint Thomas said. “These kids are asking, ‘I have a test today. What’s going on?’ The teachers didn’t have the test ready. It’s just kind of chaotic.”
Parent Megan Rafalski was near tears when asked about her family’s plan for the next day.
“I have been asked that several times and it has been — it’s been a really hard day,” she said.
The author of this hard day? Not the courts, not the school districts, not the principals, and not these children or their parents. The author was the guy who signed a nonsensical order without thinking through the repercussions.
The best way to ensure public contempt for every level of government is by pitting various parts of it against one another, dumping it all on the courts to resolve, and then telling a million parents to do whatever they want in the interim (just do it with “love”). It hardly matters what a court says at this juncture—parents have been told to defy any authority but their own. Teaching just became significantly harder in Virginia. And so did learning, if that’s something they still care about.