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How Virginia lawmakers are pushing to get students back in the classroom

COPERNI 3
Posted at 6:09 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 19:17:25-05

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Virginia public schools would be required to offer in-person instruction, with a preference towards five days per week by the fall under the latest “school reopening” proposal advanced by state lawmakers.

The final details were crafted by a House Democrat and Senate Republican and offer the last chance for the Virginia General Assembly to act on school reopening standards before the end of this year’s legislative session.

Nearly one year since the state forced schools closed because of the COVID-19 health risks, families across Virginia have called for school districts to reopen their buildings five days per week as soon as possible.

Still, the bill does face opposition.

Last fall, Yael Levin-Sheldon stopped taking jobs as a freelance data analyst to launch a learning pod at her Henrico home.

This school year, she has seen the impacts of virtual learning on her two boys, a 6th and 8th grader, and the other students in their pod.

“I said let’s do this at my house so that the kids can get a little socialization with families that we know and have been very careful with COVID.” Levin-Sheldon said. “Amazing teachers, doing the best they can with what they have, no doubt they’re going above and beyond. But I can definitely tell a difference between what my younger son is learning now, and my oldest learned two years ago. It is not the same."

The latest version of SB 1303 passed the Education Committee in the House of Delegates Monday with a bipartisan vote of 17-3. Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) is carrying the legislation and crafted the latest version with Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico).

The lawmakers said their proposal includes several key provisions:

  • Defines in-person instruction as “any form of instructional interaction between teachers and students that occurs in person and in real time”
  • Allows families who are concerned about COVID-19 risks to opt-in to virtual learning programs
  • Requires schools to let teachers with medical concerns work remotely
  • Includes “public health guardrails” that set standards for when and how local school districts should close in the event of an outbreak or high community transmission
  • Only applies to next school year and expires in August 2022

“Opening Virginia’s schools is the single most important thing we can do this session and I am happy the House is now working with me on this issue,” Dunnavant said. “Our schools must reopen five days a week, with teachers in the classroom, as soon as possible. The science says they should be open. The data shows they need to be open. And parents are saying they must be open. It’s the right thing to do for our children.”

VanValkenburg said the latest version of the bill included several items that came about from conversations with local parents, teachers, and school administrators over the past two weeks.

“One is the public health guardrails that we’ve already talked about. Two is the individual choice for parents so that parents can keep their kids virtual if they think that’s in the best interest of their child or family. Third is the protections for teachers and staff. And the fourth is that this is sunsetting; this is not education policy we’re making here,” he said. “As we’ve learned more and we’ve seen the science, we’ve seen schools go back, now is an appropriate time just to create a baseline for one year.”

If the bill gets the Governor’s signature as currently constructed, it would not take effect until July 1, 2021 and thus only impact next school year. Republicans are pushing for an emergency clause, which mean the legislation would take effect immediately, but most Democrats have balked at the idea.

VanValkenburg said the proposal does not include one, in part, because of the large geographic diversity of the state.

“Schools are already starting this process, and we don’t want to interrupt that. We also want to give schools time to get ready. When you’re governing from Alexandria to Abingdon, there is a lot of different resources and needs and issues and communities,” he said.

Dunnavant said she still supports including an emergency clause, and if the bill passes out of the General Assembly, she is calling on Governor Ralph Northam (D) to add one during his review.

The Virginia School Board Association, which represents the more than 130 public school boards in Virginia, opposes the legislation outright. The organization’s president, Nelson County School Board Member Janet Giles-Turner, said local boards need to be in charge of reopening decisions based off local data and logistics.

“You can’t put us all in the same box. Give us the authority to do what we’re doing and be held accountable by our citizens,” she said. “I agree that there needs to be an endgame, but I also agree that you got to allow individuals to get there on their own because every district is different.”

The VSBA pointed out that outbreak protections only mention “high level” transmission of the virus, which could impact school divisions across the state differently.

“We are all working toward that end goal, and that is to get all of our students back to learning in the buildings but when it is safe and when it works for all,” Giles-Turner said.

For Levin-Sheldon, seeing her own kids struggle at times, both academically and socially, is alarming for reasons that extend beyond her own family.

“My kids have literally never had any mental health issues, a very stable home, and most homes aren’t like mine,” she said. “If my kids are struggling with the ideal set up, I truly have a hard time going to sleep every night thinking about all the kids who don’t have the support I can give my own children.”

SB 1303 heads to a vote by the entire House of Delegates, and then, the Senate must approve of the new language before it heads to the Governor’s Office.