by Brandon Jarvis

Governor Ralph Northam left it up to individual school boards to decide on whether students return to in-person learning this year. Virginia Legislators who are unhappy with that decision are now taking steps to try and force the localities to offer in-person learning.

The Senate debated SB 1303 for hours on Tuesday afternoon. This bill is a mandate that would require school districts to offer in-person learning options on July 1. 

Legislators supporting the bill say that keeping students out of school buildings is doing more harm than good to students. “You are harming Virginia’s children,” said Senator Siobhan  Dunnavant (R-Henrico), the bill’s chief sponsor. “This is the most important thing we need to do this year in this session.” 

Dunnavant, the only medical doctor in the Senate says that students can return to the classrooms with the proper safety protocols in place, noting that she believes the students and staff can figure out how to succeed with in-person learning. “We should be innovating,” the senator said while presenting the bill. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and it is time for us to provide the necessity.”

 Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) spoke in support of the bill saying he grew angry when he realized his child in special education would not be receiving accommodations during the pandemic. “Please send these kids back to school. Give them a chance,” Petersen said on the Senate floor. “Let’s stop pretending we have no say in what is going on, these kids have constitutional rights.” Democratic Senators Janet Howell (Fairfax), Joe Morrissey (Richmond), and Scott Surovell (Fairfax) joined Petersen in crossing party lines and speaking in support of this bill on the floor.

Surovell said he supported this bill on Tuesday to send a message to local school boards that they need to do a better job of effectively communicating with the community. He said the bill is a “work in progress,” implying that he believes it will never become law. 

“Children absolutely need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well-being, and so safety in schools and in the community must be a priority,” said Lee Savio Beers, M.D., the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in early January. “We know that some children are really suffering without the support of in-person classroom experiences or adequate technology at home. We need governments at the state and federal levels to prioritize funding the needed safety accommodations, such as improving ventilation systems and providing personal protective equipment for teachers and staff.”

Opponents of the bill stressed the importance of allowing the locally elected school boards to make the decision that would best benefit their community. “This bill cannot be looked at in a vacuum,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond). “The students in the building are not the only ones we have to worry about, our teachers are not the only ones to worry about. The kids may not be affected the same way, but they’re spreaders.” 

Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) spoke on the floor, noting that with this bill not going into effect until July of this year, it will likely lag behind the steps that school districts are already taking. Elementary students in Hashmi’s home county of Chesterfield returned to in-person instruction this week, for example. 

The Center for Disease Control has noted that it is incredibly important for schools to find a way to reopen, though they do advise that “school officials should make decisions about school opening and about staying open for in-person learning based on CDC’s Indicators for Dynamic Decision-making.”

The bill eventually passed in the Senate on a 26-13 vote. It will now have to pass in the House of Delegates before going to Governor Northam’s office where he would have to decide between signing the bill into law or vetoing it.

“We need to give clear direction for the schools to know how to change the argument from ‘do we open’ to ‘how do we open,’” Dunnavant said in her closing argument. “This is not Democrat, it’s not Republican – this is us advocating as parents.”


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