Since his inauguration on January 15, new Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, R, has signed 11 executive orders that advance many of the key priorities he promised Virginians while on the campaign trail, but already he is facing organized resistance and legal challenges from school districts and some parents.
In November, Youngkin won a clear majority of the popular vote in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a state that has consistently backed Democrats for statewide offices since 2009.
Many Virginia parents have applauded Youngkin’s executive order to ban mask mandates in Virginia public schools, including Henrico County parent Scott Edwards, who supports the governor’s desire to give parents more say in their children’s education, particularly over the issue of mask mandates. “Allow us to make the decisions instead of being forced into agreement as was the case earlier this school year. The latest guidance is that hospital-grade masks are the only ones that are effective, yet we continue the charade,” Edwards said.
According to Youngkin, the universal masking requirement in schools has “provided inconsistent health benefits, (and) inflicted notable harm and proven to be impracticable. Masks inhibit the ability of children to communicate, delay language development, and impede the growth of emotional and social skills.”
He added, “Some children report difficulty breathing and discomfort as a result of masks. Masks have also increased feelings of isolation, exacerbating mental health issues, in which many cases pose a greater health risk to children than COVID-19. Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, mask mandates in schools have proved demoralizing to children facing these and other difficulties.”
Yet not everyone is happy with Youngkin keeping his campaign promises. Several school districts have said that they will not comply with his order barring mask mandates and a group of parents in Chesapeake have filed suit. Those opposed are looking to Senate Bill 1303, a law which instructs school districts to adhere “to the maximum extent practicable” any guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aimed at mitigating the transmission of COVID, to block Youngkin’s executive action.
The law does not mention masks specifically. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says that the authority for health measures rests with Youngkin, not the federal government and that the proven ineffectiveness of paper and cloth masks makes the case interesting, yet the governor faces a serious challenge because the law was instituted by the state legislature.
Turley writes, “There is some irony that the same politicians who heralded Biden’s use of executive power to unilaterally order such mandates are now crying foul in the use of that authority by Governor Youngkin. The difference, again, is that Youngkin has inherent authority under the state constitution — absent a countervailing state law.”
He continued, “A court would ordinarily make fast work of such defiance of state health directives. However, the districts do have a state law that gives them a good-faith basis to go to court.”
Turley said it is possible courts will not rule on the issue because the bill expires on August 1, upon which the legislature could reexamine it.
Virginia parents are also reacting positively to Youngkin’s executive order that bans the teaching of Critical Race Theory, or CRT, a framework that suggests “institutionalized racism has perpetuated a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers” (of society).
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Virginia Beach parent Annie Palumbo. “I define [CRT] as basically judging somebody by the color of their skin, telling especially the white children that because they are white they should be ashamed, they should be responsible for any race issues in this country.”
Youngkin elaborated in an address to the Virginia General Assembly this past Monday that his executive order banning the teaching of CRT had fulfilled a campaign promise. “Virginia parents want our history, all of our history, the good and the bad to be taught. They want their children to be told how to think, not what to think, (and) that’s why we shouldn’t be teaching our children to view everything through the lens of race.”
Youngkin also signed executive orders to combat and prevent human trafficking, combat antisemitism, withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, remove the state vaccine mandate for state employees, cut workplace regulations, and empower newly elected state Attorney General Jason Miyares to investigate the Loudoun County School Board and the Virginia Parole Board.
“One of the reasons Virginians get so fed up with government is the lack of transparency, and that’s a big issue here,” Miyares said in a statement. “The Virginia Parole Board broke the law when they let out murders, rapists, and cop killers early on their sentence without notifying the victims. Loudoun County Public Schools covered up a sexual assault on school grounds for political gain, leading to an additional assault of a young girl. Virginians deserve answers, they want transparency and accountability, (and) they deserve the answers they are asking for.”
The first 48 hours of Youngkin’s administration have been consequential for the Commonwealth of Virginia, showing that elections do matter — not only for statewide office but also for local elected officials, including school boards. A successful businessman without any political experience, Youngkin ran as an outsider promising that he could genuinely channel the will of the people to accomplish lasting change.
This election made history in other ways. Winsome Sears, who was a part of Youngkin’s winning campaign and who now serves as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, is the first African-American woman to win statewide office in Virginia, a fact that has not gotten near enough attention in the media. In addition, Miyares is the first Latino elected as the state’s attorney general.
All of them, but especially Youngkin, are learning that winning an election in a divided state is one thing, but governing it will be a whole different level of difficulty. In addition to legal and political efforts by the elected opposition, including a Democrat-led state senate, Youngkin will be subjected to personal attacks, possible bureaucratic rebellion, and media and activist deception — something already seen when the uninformed Twitterati blamed Youngkin for the thousands of drivers who got stranded on I-95 during a snowstorm, even though Gov. Ralph Northam was still officially in charge.
How well Youngkin works with the legislature and local officials and how effectively he is able to cope with the vicious tactics of the radical activist class that will surely come his way remains to be seen. Executive orders alone cannot shape policy despite their abundant usage.
Across the nation, Americans are tired of oppressive COVID-19 restrictions, implemented at the local school district and elsewhere, that are not founded in objective science and data. Additionally, the results in Virginia may also echo a belief that Americans are tired of the constant game of identity politics played by the political establishment, viewing American institutions and culture through a lens of race, and pitting the unvaccinated and the vaccinated against each other similarly to how they pit members of the “privileged” and the “oppressed” against each other.
This could be evidence that the broader voter concerns and trends that helped Youngkin achieve victory last November may also have a consequential impact on the upcoming midterm elections this November. If Youngkin can govern as effectively as he campaigned, it could also show that choosing leaders who are guided by the Constitution, common sense, and empowering their constituents rather than advancing their own political careers is the best way forward for America.