The GOP's red vested charlatan in Virginia gets unmasked
Parents of young children and teens across Virginia this week got a taste of what it means for a purple-ish state to roll the dice on a Republican candidate for governor in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.
Sure, he wore that red vest and mostly kept Donald Trump at arm's length for the duration of his campaign. But the mayhem GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin injected into the state's school system in order to score points with a political minority of voters proved that he is just as willing to play Russian roulette with the lives of children as Trump mini-mes like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
In fact, that's the probably the exact point Youngkin meant to make: Don't let the red vest fool ya—I'm just as extreme as the other GOP governors vying for a 2024 audience among the party's radicalized base.
True to pandemic-era Republican form, Youngkin declared he was "having a ball" on the very week that his new optional masking order forced a wave of impossible choices on parents and educators in a state that had mostly grown accustomed to mandatory in-school masking even though some parents didn't favor it.
A September 2021 Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 66% of Virginia’s public school parents said they supported mask mandates for teachers, staff, and students, as did 69% of registered voters overall. Just 28% of Virginians opposed school districts requiring mask wearing, and that's the cohort Youngkin chose to prioritize purely for political gain.
To be clear, Youngkin's order has put both the lives and mental health of teachers, kids and their vulnerable family members on the line. In fact, the Washington Post's Hanna Natanson did a laudable job documenting the impossible dilemmas and mental anguish Youngkin has managed to visit on so many constituents in just two short weeks on the job.
Here's an excerpt depicting the bind of one parent.
In Virginia Beach, the mother of a girl with a heart condition wonders if she should stop sending her child to school, where more of her daughter’s classmates are going unmasked every day. The mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter’s privacy, said one of the children in her medical support group — for parents of children who have congenital heart defects — died of covid-19 this month.
But her daughter suffered during online learning, and the mother is scared what will happen to the 14-year-old’s mental health if she stays home. For now, the mother is sending emails to the school board pleading with them to reestablish a mask mandate.
“Bowing to a morally and scientifically untenable executive order isn’t acceptable,” she wrote on Tuesday. “I hope you will correct this mistake before it causes damage that can’t be undone.”
Another mother in Virginia Beach and one in Chesapeake decided to keep their kids home this week because they were terrified to go to school when some kids wouldn't be wearing masks.
But it's not just the parents of students who feel gutted by Youngkin's human experiment.
A ninth-grade English teacher and mom with a blood-clotting disorder that puts her at mortal risk if she contracts COVID-19 was forced to contemplate her deep desire to live long enough to see her son graduate, get a job, and get married.
“When I was in the Navy, I signed on the dotted line to put my life at risk and I understood that,” Amanda Lambert, 41, told the Post. “This is different.”
A Chesterfield elementary school teacher said optional masking would inevitably lead to spikes in student infections and widespread quarantines followed by a mountain of extra work for teachers forced to develop alternate assignments for students missing class. For the first time in the pandemic, she said she is considering quitting her job.
“All that he’s done is divide our state and made this a political thing — he sees teachers as the villain, is how it feels,” said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that she could be retaliated against. “We are so broken down at this point by how little we are cared about anymore.”
Youngkin's order, which is now the subject of two legal challenges, has also divided Virginia's school districts. Among the state's 131 districts, more than half have chosen to defy the new governor's order while 59 districts adopted optional masking. A Post analysis found the schools that have chosen to continue enforcing mask mandates account for some 67% of the students enrolled in the state's public schools.
Even Loudoun County—a tony northern suburb where education policy controversies erupted during the gubernatorial race—saw just two small demonstrations against mandated masking early in the week. Out of the district's 81,000 students, only about 100 students declined to wear masks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a new Public Policy Polling survey released Friday found that Youngkin's approval rating on the pandemic is already underwater, 44% approve - 47% disapprove. In the survey, 56% of respondents said "local school districts should set mask requirements for themselves," while 31% believed Youngkin "should set mask requirements for local school districts," according to The Hill. Asked about Youngkin’s specific order, 40% backed it while 55% opposed.
Youngkin, who clearly misled Virginians on the matter, is presently trying to lie his way out of the bait-and-switch he pulled. Shortly after being elected, Youngkin said he would leave school masking policies up to local school boards. But his opt-out order completely undercuts the effectiveness of districts' universal mask mandates. As multiple studies have shown, mask mandates are the best way to both keep kids safe and ensure in-school learning can continue without triggering rolling waves of mass quarantines.
But in a Washington Post op-ed this week, Youngkin claimed he had kept his word even as he empowered some parents to endanger the health of both educators and other parents' children.
“My executive order ensures that parents can opt-out their kids from a school’s mask mandate,” the governor wrote. “It bans neither the wearing of masks nor the issuing of mask mandates. Parents can now choose whether wearing a mask at school is right for their child.”
Republicans in the state are surely over the moon with Youngkin's performance. Pre-Trump, the goal of governing used to be to please most of the people while creating as little havoc as possible and keeping everyone safe.
But in the post-Trump Republican Party, chaos rules. The more damage a politician can do post haste—the more misery they can visit upon their political enemies— the more their star rises in the GOP. Youngkin's first two weeks in office have proven wildly successful by that measure and, as he said himself, he's having the time of his life.
"Virginia’s parents have had enough with the government dictating how they should raise their children," Youngkin wrote in his op-ed. "On the campaign trail, I listened to parents and, as governor, I will continue to listen."
Youngkin listened to some parents—a minority of parents, in fact—and hung everyone else out to dry.
Any Virginian who was on the fence but voted for Youngkin because he seemed nice enough, wore that red vest, and had a business background should have received the message by now: No matter how reasonable any Republican seems while campaigning, their political incentives to create pandemonium once in office far outweigh keeping the peace and ensuring the safety of their constituents.