A Virginia Democrat state senator had his “Joe Manchin moment” when, in a fiery letter to the Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent, he responded to the district’s doubling down on what he called “Forced Masking of Children” by vowing to pass a law prohibiting it “in the coming days.”
“It has become hard, if not impossible, to find a respected medical researcher who still defends Forced Masking of Children as a public safety measure,” Sen. Chap Petersen wrote Monday. Petersen, a moderate Democrat from Fairfax City, serves in a state senate where Democrats have such a thin majority that, when he votes with Republicans, Republicans can pass legislation.
“The decision to wear a mask in public – when there is so little correlation with public health – makes it de facto a political decision. In other words, by wearing a mask in a public setting, the wearer is able to communicate a political message, e.g. “I Care About Others” or “I voted for Biden” … You are forcing children to make a political statement that they (and their parents) may not believe. That violates the First Amendment,” he wrote.
It was a remarkable example of an elected Democrat politician calling out a nominally nonpartisan schools chief for being more partisan than he is — so partisan, in fact, that the superintendent was willing to implement what Petersen described as “inhumane” policies in service of political virtue signaling.
“For the past two years, we have seen the lives of our children disrupted and destroyed by a pandemic that posed little, or no, threat to them physically. Too many decisions involving children have been dictated by political expediency. As a parent, I’ve had enough,” he wrote. “In the coming days, I will ask the Governor to either send down special legislation or amend existing legislation so as to end the Forced Masking of Children. We will pass that with a bipartisan majority and this sad episode will finally end.”
School districts in liberal areas have defied an executive order from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin that gave parents the right to opt-out of school mask mandates. They have cited as justification a Senate bill called SB 1303 that forced northern Virginia jurisdictions to resume in-person learning, saying the bill also says schools should follow CDC guidance where “practicable.”
But Petersen, an architect of that bill, said FCPS has no excuse. He previously warned that Fairfax should be clear with the community about what circumstances would be enough to remove masks, and to set a maximum end date. When they doubled down instead, he shook the state with a letter that’s worth reading in its entirety:
On Friday evening, February 4th, in my capacity as a parent, I received the attached press release from Fairfax County Public Schools which announced the ruling of the Arlington County Circuit Court on the Governor’s Executive Order No. 2 regarding “parental option” for any child masking policies.
The press release begins by lauding the Court’s ruling as an “immediate action to protect the health of the community and also reaffirms the constitutional rights of the school boards.” It then states that FCPS will indefinitely continue its policy of Forced Masking for “all students, staff and visitors, a regulation which is overwhelmingly supported by our staff and families” which “has been a critical safety measure during the pandemic, especially during the most recent surge.”
No evidence is cited for any of these statements, which are clearly opinions – not facts. Since FCPS has circulated its opinions via a public forum, I will respond in kind on the two key presumptions:
I. “Forced Masking of Children Saves Lives”
Ever since the General Assembly required FCPS to re-open in the spring of 2021, the students and staff of FCPS have been forced to wear masks, regardless of their health, vaccination status or whether the community was experiencing a “surge.” To the best of my knowledge, no scientific basis has ever been offered for Forced Masking; rather parents are asked to assume that this policy “saves lives.”
After a year, the data on student masking is easily found and it is overwhelming: the forced masking of school children has no correlation with community health.
Let us examine the data points. First of all, there are major states around the United States (e.g. Ohio, Florida and Texas) which have had no mask mandate for at least the past year, when vaccinations became widely available. There is no meaningful discrepancy between the health outcomes of their children and those living in states like New York and California — or jurisdictions like Fairfax County – which have strictly masked children. According to CDC data, numbers regarding child health in these states are functionally equal; an outcome which reflects the fact that the COVID19 pandemic, over two years, has had no statistical impact on child mortality rates.
The residual question is whether the Forced Masking of Children is beneficial to others, i.e. family members who may have compromised immune systems. Again, the data shows the opposite: that masking has no meaningful impact on community transmission. In a comprehensively researched article published January 26th in The Atlantic magazine, the authors who are infectious disease specialists concluded that “no real-world data indicate that these masks decrease transmissions in school settings.”
Numerous other studies by impartial media sources confirm these same findings, including publications from left-leaning sources as Bloomberg News, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Indeed, it has become hard, if not impossible, to find a respected medical researcher who still defends Forced Masking of Children as a public safety measure.
II. “Forced Masking of Children is Popular”
In the absence of compelling scientific evidence, the fall-back argument from FCPS and other pro-mask advocates has been that Forced Masking of Children is “popular” with staff and parents and, therefore, it should be kept in place for as long as possible, regardless of whether anyone objects.
In my years as a parent, I have been asked to take multiple surveys by FCPS over issues such as “community racism” or “bullying.” To date, I have not been asked to take a survey on Forced Masking (or “universal masking” as it’s more euphemistically called). Therefore, I am skeptical of this statement, especially since I’ve been contacted by so many FCPS parents and staff in the past few weeks who want to speak out against Forced Child Masking but are afraid of the consequences.
More critically, the decision to wear a mask in public – when there is so little correlation with public health – makes it de facto a political decision. In other words, by wearing a mask in a public setting, the wearer is able to communicate a political message, e.g. “I Care About Others” or “I voted for Biden” or even “I’m Vaccinated.” The ability to communicate a political message is the essence of our First Amendment, but coercing others into adopting that statement, especially a student in a public school, is the exact opposite.
For this reason, your argument that “Forced Masking is Popular” is the very reason why this policy must end. You are forcing children to make a political statement that they (and their parents) may not believe. That violates the First Amendment.
III. Where Do We Go From Here?
For the past two years, we have seen the lives of our children disrupted and destroyed by a pandemic that posed little, or no, threat to them physically. Too many decisions involving children have been dictated by political expediency. As a parent, I’ve had enough.
In 2021, the General Assembly solved the issue of school closures by ordering schools to reopen for in person learning five days a week via the passage of SB 1303. We stepped in because school districts were failing to do the right thing for children. This is not just my opinion – it is reflected in the fact that Virginia public schools, such as FCPS, had a record loss of enrollment in 2021, which has continued into the current year. Something is not right.
In the coming days, I will ask the Governor to either send down special legislation or amend existing legislation so as to end the Forced Masking of Children. We will pass that with a bipartisan majority and this sad episode will finally end.
Of course, FCPS is free to end the Forced Masking policy on its own accord. If it does so, I am confident there will the same public health impact as when we (i) re-opened schools, (ii) permitted school sports, and (iii) did away with the “six foot” rule inside school buildings. In other words, there will be no negative health effect and, again, Virginians will be wondering (like we did after the reopening of schools) how we ever allowed an unscientific and inhumane policy to last as long as this one did.
J. Chapman Petersen
Member Senate of Virginia