Glenn Youngkin promised to be on the side of parents as Virginia governor, and on his first day in office, he delivered.
The Republican issued an executive order allowing parents to decide whether their kids will wear masks in school, and met an instant wall of resistance from Democratic-controlled counties and criticism from the White House press secretary Jen Psaki. A Washington Post headline said that Youngkin is “terrifying” people.
The flak notwithstanding, his order is a sign of a growing backlash against COVID-19 restrictions that will likely only gain force as the pandemic drags on and former articles of faith, including on masking, get called into increasing doubt.
Youngkin has ventured into a legally murky area. Critics believe he doesn’t have the authority to issue his order because Virginia passed a statue in early 2021 that says schools should “to the maximum extent practicable” adhere to CDC-blessed strategies for controlling spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still recommending masks. The statue is vague, though, and doesn’t mention masks. Youngkin’s predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam, felt compelled to issue an executive order specifically mandating them in K-12 schools.
There’s also the question of whether decisions on masking and other mitigation measures are best left to school districts. Here, it is worth noting that Youngkin’s order is different from that of his fellow Republican governors in Texas and Florida, who prohibited school districts from adopting mask mandates. Instead, Youngkin is establishing a carveout for parents from mandates, should they choose to take advantage of it.
All that said, it is clearly time for mask mandates to end. The conventional wisdom on masks has gone from “don’t wear them they are useless” at the beginning of the pandemic, to “you are a terrible person if you don’t wear them” for about a year and a half, to now, “cloth masks don’t really protect anyone.”
Despite Jen Psaki saying that Arlington County, which is vowing to defy Youngkin, is standing up for kids and their safety, the case for masking kids in schools is weak or nonexistent.
We are an outlier on this question. The CDC recommends masking all kids age 2 and older, whereas other health authorities are considerably more nuanced.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control doesn’t recommend masking for schoolchildren younger than age 12, noting — correctly — that they “may have a lower tolerance to wearing masks for extended periods of time, and may fail to wear them properly.” In areas with community spread, it recommends masks for students in secondary schools, although it stipulates that they should “be seen as a complimentary measure, rather than a standalone measure to prevent transmission within schools.”
The World Health Organization makes distinctions based on age. It says that kids age 5 and younger shouldn’t be required to wear masks based on the “overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance.” It is open to the masking of 6- to 11-year-olds, so long as a wide variety of conditions are met. And it says that kids age 12 and over should mask like adults.
Many European countries have avoided sweeping American-style mask mandates on school kids, and for good reason. A large-scale CDC study found no benefits from the masking of kids. Many students wear cloth masks that don’t provide much protection (even if worn and maintained properly) and no sane person should want to subject a child to an N95 all day long.
Parents in Virginia who believe that masking is important can still act accordingly, and vaccines and boosters are available to provide another layer of protection. But masks remain something more than a public-health measure for many proponents — they are a signal of virtue and a pillar of pandemic orthodoxy.
Youngkin’s offense, at bottom, is dissenting from this worldview, and providing options for parents who don’t share it, either.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.