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Virginia General Assembly mandates in-person instruction starting this July

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Virginia state Senate meeting 2021 session in the Science Museum of Virginia

he Virginia Senate has been meeting in the Science Museum of Virginia during the pandemic.

Virginia schools will be required to provide in-person instruction by this summer under a bill passed by both chambers of the General Assembly.

The Senate voted nearly unanimously on Thursday to accept a compromise bill developed in collaboration with House Democrats.  Democrats in both chambers resisted multiple attempts to add an emergency clause that would have pushed the bill into effect as soon as it was signed by the governor.

The final legislation requires local school divisions to begin providing face-to-face learning by July 1. And it specifically defines in-person instruction as interactions between teachers and students “in person and in real time” — a concession to Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-12th, of Henrico, who sponsored the original legislation and said she had concerns over some districts that have hired classroom monitors to observe students as they complete online lessons. 

But the final bill also includes caveats that made it more palatable to a broad range of Democrats — including Gov. Ralph Northam, who already directed Virginia schools to begin reopening their buildings by March 15.

“The governor appreciates 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,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in a statement earlier this week.

The House version, she wrote, addressed “concerns” with Dunnavant’s original legislation — a one-line emergency bill that would have required districts to begin offering in-person instruction as soon as it was signed by the governor.

The final bill, spearheaded in the House by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-72nd, of Henrico, offered what he described as “appropriate guardrails” to return students to the classroom while recognizing concerns on the part of educators and administrators. While it requires in-person instruction, it also gives schools the option to continue providing virtual instruction for families who request it.

The legislation also stipulates that school divisions can close down again if COVID-19 transmission is occurring at a “high level” within buildings according to guidelines established by the Virginia Department of Health — but only as long as necessary to address the outbreak. 

Teachers will be permitted to work from home if they need to isolate or quarantine, or if it’s deemed a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the bill includes a sunset clause, setting an expiration date of Aug. 1, 2022.

“We are not making policy here,” VanValkenburg, a public school civics teacher, said during a floor debate in the House. “We are responding to a moment, and we are not changing the future of Virginia’s education system.”

Those provisions allowed what was originally considered long-shot legislation to gain broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, driven by growing evidence that schools don’t contribute significantly to the spread of COVID-19 — or pose a particular risk to students and teachers who return to the classroom.

As President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen schools within his first 100 days of office, physicians in Virginia have also voiced strong support for the measure. The state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics testified in favor of the bill, citing a survey of 203 pediatric providers who reported growing complaints of depression and anxiety among their young patients — along with rising obesity, substance use and newly diagnosed ADHD.

The legislation passed the House 88-9 and the Senate 37-3 with support from both parties. But the measure was opposed by several prominent members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, including Sens. Mamie Locke, D-2nd, of Hampton, and Jennifer McClellan, D-9th, of Richmond.

On the House side, Del. Luke Torian, D-52nd, of Prince William — the chairman of the House Appropriations committee — voted against the bill, as did six other members of the Legislative Black Caucus. 

Those included Del. Jeff Bourne, D-2nd, of Richmond, who said the legislation failed to consider aging and overcrowded school buildings in local school divisions including his own. Richmond Public Schools has already announced plans to remain virtual until the fall.

“A study commissioned by then-Gov. McDonnell found that 80% of our school buildings were at least 37 years old,” said Bourne, a former Richmond School Board member. “What does that mean? It means classrooms are smaller. It means there aren’t auditoriums — they’re all in the same room. So our ability to social distance in the way that we all know works is nearly impossible.”

While the legislation earned the support of the Virginia Education Association, an influential union representing more than 40,000 teachers and other school staff, other educators and advocates have argued that reopening is complicated by the presence of new COVID-19 variants that are more infectious and infect children more easily than earlier versions of the virus. 

The vote came on the same week that health officials in the Richmond area confirmed five new cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C. While still relatively rare, the condition is associated with COVID-19 infections or close exposures among children and can cause inflammation in multiple parts of the body — including the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain.

“One thing that’s been absent from this discussion is whether this bill should go into effect at all,” said Del. Lee Carter, D-50th, of Manassas, who voted against the legislation after voicing the same concerns.

“It’s my fear that if this bill goes into effect, we will see another round of community transmission in the fall when our schools reopen and these new variants spread like wildfire,” he said.

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