by Brandon Jarvis

“This is the bill that speaks to opening schools,” said the legislation’s sponsor, Virginia state Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), when she presented it Monday in the Education Subcommittee for the House of Delegates. The bill has already passed the full Senate, and it took one step closer to reaching the house floor for a vote when it advanced out of the subcommittee early Monday morning with bipartisan support.

House Republican leaders, however, spoke out against the bill after the meeting, leaving it unclear if the bipartisan support will continue in the future.

The original bill that left the Senate was simple. It only stated that each school division would be required to make in-person learning options available to all students.  

Democrats are supporting the legislation by adding more specifics to it with a substitute bill. According to the subcommittee Chair Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), the substitute makes the bill “responsive to the times.”

He said the first action he took in crafting the substitute was to attach a sunset clause so that it would only last one year. He said this was an effort to ensure that the bill focuses on schools and COVID-19 only.

The substitute also adds a mandate to provide virtual and in-person learning options – but it clarifies that hybrid learning, where students only attend a few days a week, is an acceptable option. The local districts would still have the majority of the decision-making power, but they would be required to follow the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines for in-school safety. 

This comes after the CDC released new guidelines last week outlining how schools can return to in-person learning during the pandemic. “The CDC guidelines that came out this week were outstanding,” Dunnavant said on Monday. “Schools should be the last thing that we close and the first thing that we open.” 

The legislation would also direct the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) to clarify what various outbreak levels would look like so that individual schools can be shut down if necessary – instead of entire districts. 

The bill is largely symbolic for the current school year, however, due to the emergency clause being removed in the Senate. Without that clause, the bill will not go into effect until July of this year if it becomes law.

“I think your substitute puts some more flesh around it,” Dunnavant said to the members of the committee before they voted unanimously to advance the bill to the full committee.

“This is a continued work in progress,” VanValkenburg stated, noting that he will be meeting with Dunnavant on Tuesday to continue working on the legislation. “This is a bipartisan effort.” 

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) was not inclined to express any positive sentiments toward the Democrats when he spoke to the press on Monday. He is unimpressed with the new legislation, referring to it as “essentially a codification of the status quo.” Gilbert continued by accusing the Democrats of doing nothing more than “lip service” to provide themselves with a political lifeline.  

Gilbert is pushing back because Republicans have been calling for a return to in-person learning since before the current school year began. Democrats have largely been quiet on the issue with Governor Ralph Northam continuing to allow the school boards in individual localities to make the decision themselves. He did change course earlier this month, however, when he announced a mandate for all school districts in Virginia to offer some form of in-person learning by March 15 of this year.

 “We know that children learn better in classrooms and that going to school is vital for their social-emotional needs and for receiving critical services like meals,” Northam said at the time.

Republicans say that they are glad that the Democrats are now starting to push for students to return to school, but they still believe it took way too long for the majority party to take action. “We figured well hey, they finally got the memo – they understand that this is going to hurt them politically,” Gilbert said on Monday. “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.” 

VanValkenburg stated on Monday afternoon in an interview that he previously believed schools were going to figure out how to return on their own prior to the spike in COVID-19 cases at the end of the Fall. “It looked like this was a problem that was going to work itself out in the fall,” VankValkenburg said on Monday afternoon. He is referencing localities like Chesterfield, who briefly sent students back in the late fall, and Henrico, where officials were planning to do the same before the COVID-19 numbers quickly spiked at the end of November. “But then that didn’t happen, that is why we do need to act now,” VanValkenburg said Monday.

With the substitute not mandating a five-day in-person option, Gilbert still believes that the bill does very little to change the current state of education in Virginia and he is worried about the impact. “If this goes on any longer, I don’t know what we can expect as a society to come from this other than very bad things,” he said Monday afternoon. 

The bill with Dunnavant with VanValkenburg’s substitute will be up for consideration in the full House Education committee on Wednesday. 

Related: Dunnavant teamed up with Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) to call for the formation of a Teacher Reserve Corp.

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By vascope