Virginia's New Governor Bans Mask Mandates, 'Critical Race Theory' in Schools on Day 1 'Just Like We Promised'

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s first orders were met with some backlash by school districts and administrators

Glenn Youngkin
Glenn Youngkin. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Virginia's brand-new governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin, took the oath of office Saturday on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond and quickly got to work by signing two executive directives as well as nine orders — including some that got immediate push-back, like bans on teaching "critical race theory" in schools and requiring students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"It's Day One, and we are going to work just like we promised," Youngkin, 55, said in a statement. "The important steps we are taking today begins the work of restoring excellence in education, making our communities safer, opening Virginia for business and reinvigorating job growth, and making government work for the people, and not the other way around."

Youngkin's first order prohibits "the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory," a set of academic concepts that consider how the U.S.' legacy of slavery, racial inequality and the law are connected.

Despite typically circulating mostly in higher education circles, the term has become widely used — especially by conservatives — as a catch-all for issues of race, diversity and equity.

Youngkin, a former private equity executive who has never held political office, ran on a promise to ban the theory, even though Virginia educators have said its concepts are not taught in public schools and would be inappropriate for young students.

During his inauguration speech, Youngkin got the most applause when he addressed "removing politics from the classroom," NPR reports.

His order defines "inherently divisive concepts" in a number of ways, including those that suggest an "individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other member of the same race ethnicity, sex or faith."

Glenn Youngkin
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Critics of the order worry it could limit what teachers are able to discuss in their classrooms while discussing subjects like history which would include topics like slavery, the Civil War and the civil rights movement.

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras appeared to reject the order. "The Commonwealth was literally created on the backs of enslaved Africans," he wrote on Twitter Sunday. "We will continue to study that and be honest about its profound implications for our students and families today."

"The war they have declared on Black history is dangerous, to say the least," Del. Lamont Bagby, a Democrat and member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said of the order, according to The Washington Post.

The second order signed by Youngkin allows parents of students to decide whether their child must wear a mask in public schools, ending a mandate his predecessor, former Gov. Ralph Northam, had in place.

"A child whose parent has elected that he or she is not subject to a mask mandate should not be required to wear a mast under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education, or any other state authority," the order states.

Several school districts issued statements to say their mask mandates remain in effect.

"Arlington Public Schools will continue to require all staff and students to wear masks inside on school grounds and on buses, as part of our layered approach to safety," that district said Saturday. "Universal mask use has proven effective in keeping COVID-19 transmission rates low in our schools and ensuring schools remain safe and open."

Fairfax County Public Schools said it is reviewing the governor's executive order but will "continue universal masking for all students and staff."

Youngkin replied to the news that districts plan to ignore his order, which goes into effect Jan. 24. "I hope they will listen to parents," he said, "because we will use every resource within the governor's authority to explore what we can do and what we will do in order to make sure that parents' rights are protected."

Also in his speech, Youngkin made a promise to represent all Virginians. "No matter who you voted for," he said, "I pledge to be your advocate, your voice, your governor."

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