RICHMOND — State lawmakers who pressed Gov. Ralph Northam to return children to schools amid the pandemic reached a deal Monday to mandate in-person learning in Virginia.
At issue was achieving consensus about what “in-person” really meant, a term the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, feared some schools might attempt to work around. The bill basically mandates that schools offer in-person instruction five days a week while adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mitigation strategies.
The House education committee approved a draft of SB 1303 with a tighter definition of “in-person” as state health officials announced that five Richmond-area children have Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a potentially deadly syndrome linked to COVID-19. At its mildest, the symptoms can include rash, fever, or gastrointestinal problems. At its worst, it can constrict the heart from pumping enough blood.
Dunnavant acknowledged the condition was a potentially “serious consequence” of COVID but did not change her stance, citing research on congregate settings that she said, with mitigation, don’t show a significant spread, especially with young children.
“I think it’s really where we are — is that the preponderance of this science is so overwhelming that thinking people can’t disagree with the assertion that schools have to open,” Dunnavant, who is a physician, said in an interview. She first introduced the intention alongside Sens. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, signaling bipartisan support.
The legislation must pass the House of Delegates before heading to Northam’s desk. If signed into law, it would take effect July 1.
The debate on whether schools should reopen for in-person learning comes as school divisions are working to get teachers vaccinated and officials face tough choices about how many children to welcome back, and how.
Some opponents of the measure — including Tazewell County School Board member David Woodard — voiced concerns about the state telling local school divisions what to do.
“The Constitution of Virginia gives control over local schools to local school boards,” he told the committee. “One size fits all legislation and rules don’t necessarily work all the time, and this is one place where it will not work. What works in Northern Virginia doesn’t work in Southwest. What works in Southwest doesn’t work in Hampton Roads … it’s in the Constitution for a reason.”
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said the legislation is meant to help the state help local school divisions.
“I think what we’ve seen is that the state can be effective in providing a baseline here to make sure that we’re doing it well, and I think that’s appropriate in this moment,” he said.
The change Dunnavant offered Monday defines in-person learning as “any form of instructional interaction between teachers and students that occurs in person and in real time.” It also asserts that teachers simply proctoring students while they do virtual instruction in school buildings won’t count. The bill mandates that school boards offer the minimum instructional hours required by the state, a striking change from a substitute proposed earlier from VanValkenburg.
VanValkenburg’s legislation allowed for hybrid instruction, where students alternate between virtual and in-person learning. VanValkenburg supported the change, and asked the committee to reject the substitute he drafted alongside the Northam administration.
A Northam spokeswoman said the governor supported the legislature’s efforts to address concerns.
“The governor appreciates these efforts to ensure school reopening is consistent with health guidelines, respects the constitutional authority of school divisions and prioritizes the safety of students, teachers and staff,” said Alena Yarmosky.
The substitute does allow for schools to close if transmission risk becomes high as defined in Virginia Department of Education guidance. Under most circumstances, divisions would be required to remain open if risk is not considered high. The bill would sundown in 2022.
Some Republicans demanded the legislation take effect immediately. Dunnavant included that language when she first introduced the bill, but removed it following debate in the Senate.
“Why not legislation to push this forward ASAP? Our kids are suffering, we know it,” asked Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton. “As a former educator, the consequences that we’re dealing with right now are astronomical, and if we pass this legislation effective July 1, why not now?”
Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who is running for lieutenant governor, motioned to amend the bill to include an emergency clause. VanValkenburg objected, saying it might cost school divisions their flexibility. The motion failed, 9-13.
As of Monday, only two school divisions in the state, Richmond and Sussex, are fully remote with no plans to reopen school buildings on a wide scale, according to the Virginia Department of Education. On Jan. 16, prior to Northam’s expectations for schools to open by March 15, 42 school divisions were fully remote.