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Republicans push for full in-person school; Northam says they're 'playing politics'

RICHMOND — Virginia Republicans on Wednesday called for students to return to school buildings five days a week this fall, citing new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

GOP lawmakers said during a virtual news conference that Gov. Ralph Northam should prioritize in-person learning for all students in the state, wading into a controversial debate over when and how to return students to school buildings that shuttered in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We want to open schools safely and we can,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico.

Said Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier: “The reality is that being in the classroom on a normal schedule, five days a week, with the same kids all day, is less risky than a disjointed schedule where people spend a couple days in school and then the rest of the day or rest of the week out of school with different groups of people.”

The Northam administration accused Republicans of “playing politics.”

“This is about public health. While Governor Northam wants nothing more than to have children back in school this fall, recent surges in other states make it clear we need to proceed cautiously,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement. “We must continue to prioritize safety — not just for students and their families, but for teachers, staff, and communities across the commonwealth.”

She added: “No one — not state legislators, and not the president of the United States — should be playing politics.”

The state on Monday revised the guidance it gave to local school systems on reopening, allowing for students to be as close as 3 feet apart if they wear face masks and are not showing symptoms of the virus. Recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has urged schools to reopen, spurred the change. Previous recommendations from the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested staying 6 feet apart.

The revised guidelines, according to Republicans in a joint news release, “still leave too much confusion about what is expected of school districts from an instruction standpoint.”

The decision on how and when to reopen rests solely in the hands of local school boards, the updated guidance reiterates.

Republicans asked Northam to rescind the guidance he has issued and instead push for more in-person instruction. They declined to say if they support a statewide mandate on reopening in the fall.

“We’d like for the state to get out of the way of the school boards doing their job,” Dunnavant said. “That’s what those guidelines do.”

GOP lawmakers also said they want, among other things, more paid leave for teachers and staff for coronavirus-related issues; raises for teachers and more funding for Virtual Virginia, an online learning network the state already expanded to help with the transition to remote learning.

“Online learning should be a choice and actually not a mandate,” said Vogel.

The legislators also said they’ll push for immunity for school districts from lawsuits related to the virus and reopening, which education officials have been concerned about. Lawmakers want that immunity policy to be taken up during the August special session of the General Assembly.


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