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Virginia Senate passes bill ending school mask mandates — with Democratic votes

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Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A bipartisan bill to make masks optional in all of Virginia's K-12 schools passed Wednesday with three Democrats joining Republicans to codify GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin's executive order. The bill now heads to the state House of Delegates, where Republicans have the majority, and it is expected to pass.

The Senate voted 21 to 17 in favor of the bill which requires schools to be open for in-person learning and gives parents the right to decide if their children will wear masks in school. Youngkin celebrated the bill's passing in a statement.

"Kids across the Commonwealth win with this bipartisan vote today. Parents are now empowered to decide whether their children should wear a mask in schools," the governor said.

"I promised that as governor, Virginia would move forward with an agenda that empowers parents on the upbringing, education, and care of their own children. I am proud to continue to deliver on that promise," he continued. "This vote also shows that school boards who are attacking their own students are stunningly detached from reality. It's time to put kids first and get back to normal."

The bill would not have passed without Democratic support. Democrats have a majority in the state Senate,and three lawmakers crossed the aisle to join Republicans and end school mask mandates. Those Democrats were Sens. Chap Petersen, Joseph D. Morrissey, and Lynwood W. Lewis Jr.

Petersen partnered with Republican Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant to introduce the parental opt out legislation. Dunnavant introduced a bill that would require school boards to permanently offer in-person instruction, and Petersen offered an amendment that would give parents an opt out on mask mandates for their children in K-12 schools. The amendment passed with more support than the final bill, with 10 Democrats voting in favor. But by the time Wednesday came about, seven of those lawmakers switched their positions.

Following the final vote on the bill, Dunnavant celebrated and called on the House and the governor to quickly enact it into law.

"This is a big win for our kids and families! In person instruction and parental mask options are important to the well-being and development of our children," she said. "On to the House and a quick trip to the Governor's desk!"

She also thanked Petersen for going against the majority of the Democratic conference and supporting parents' rights.

Youngkin became the first Republican elected governor of Virginia since 2009 in November after campaigning on supporting parental rights in education, including the rights to make decisions on masking and exert control over materials taught in school. Upon taking office, the governor issued 11 executive orders fulfilling his campaign promises, including an order creating a parental opt out from school mask mandates.

Some Virginia schools have refused to comply with the governor's order and parental groups that support mask mandates have sued to keep them in place. A judge in Arlington blocked Youngkin's order from taking effect in seven school districts, while the state Supreme Court this week dismissed a lawsuit brought by parents from Chesapeake on procedural grounds.

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