(A Colonial Heights school directs parents down separate drop off paths to limit contact.)

by Brandon Jarvis

The Education Committee in the House of Delegates advanced legislation Monday that will require school districts to offer in-person learning to K-12 students five-days-a-week. If it passes in the Senate and Governor Ralph Northam signs it, the requirement would not go into effect until July making it largely symbolic for the current school year.

“This is a safe way for us to do the most important thing,” the bill’s original sponsor Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) said Monday when addressing the committee. The Senator stressed that she believes getting kids back in school is the most important issue for the General Assembly.

Dunnavant, the only medical doctor in the Senate called the negative impacts that students are experiencing while missing school the worst health crisis happening now. 

Dunnavant’s original bill was simple and would have only required districts to offer in-person learning as an option. It also had an emergency clause that would have made the legislation effective immediately, but that was removed in order for the bill to receive the support it needs to potentially pass. Additionally, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburrg (D-Henrico), a public school teacher, worked with Dunnavant over the last week to create a new version of the bill with much more included.

On top of offering in-person instruction five days a week, the new legislation states that schools are required to follow the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for the mitigation of COVID-19. The new guidelines offer a detailed roadmap for a measured reopening process to get students back in school buildings. 

The legislation also instruct schools to stay open regardless of community spread. School districts will be required to follow the Virginia Department of Health’s (VDH) determination of school impact when considering closing down a building. Under the current guidance from VDH, school districts would not be able to shut down a school until there are either three separate outbreaks taking place or several cases in multiple classrooms or grade levels.  

This bill provides no additional funding to help schools become compliant with the CDC guidelines, however.  

The latest budget that was crafted prior to the creation of this legislation includes $123 million to help schools with COVID-19 measures including $51.1 million for summer school programs like remediation, tutoring, and mental health supports; $30 million to create innovative programs, $26.6 million for additional school counselors, $8.8 million to transition from high-stakes SOL tests to through-year growth assessments, and $10.7 for ESL programs. 

If this becomes law it will still allow the option for virtual learning and it directs the Department of Education to develop guidelines for virtual success. 

The bill also clarifies that in-person learning consists of students and teachers in the same building, face-to-face.

While Republicans in Virginia have been calling for schools to reopen since the summer, the House Republican Leader hit the Democrats last week for making this deal now, accusing them of trying to find a political lifeline on the issue. “It is unfortunate that it took that level of motivation for them to come to the table and say that we are going to fix this problem,” House Republican leader Todd Gilbert said in an interview last week.

Regardless of the politics, House Republicans still seem poised to support the bill when it comes to a full vote on the House floor. “House Republicans know that we have to get our children back in school as soon as possible,” noted Garren Shipley, the communications director for Gilbert. “The bill pending in the General Assembly takes a large step in that direction.” 

It is unclear if the latest version of the bill will pass again in the Senate. Dunnavant’s original bill successfully made it through, but the chamber will have to vote again due to the changes that VanValkenburg and Dunnavant made to the language.

The legislation has a sunset clause that is enacted in August of 2022. VanValkenburg said the reason for the expiration date was to keep it focused specifically on COVID-19 and schools right now, instead of a larger debate.

With the legislative session scheduled to end on March 1, the full House is expected to take the bill up in the coming days.

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By vascope