(The Center Square) – One of Virginia Republicans’ top priorities in next month's legislative special session will be ensuring in-person schooling is available for every student five days a week.
“This is really important for kids,” Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, told The Center Square.
Any plan to provide five days of in-person schooling for every student likely would conflict with Gov. Ralph Northam’s guidance for public schools, which mandates social distancing between desks during each phase of reopening. This mandate will force many schools to provide virtual learning for students or a blend of in-person and virtual learning.
Northam’s plan is a phased-in approach. During the first phase, schools can provide special education programs and child care services for working families. In the second phase, schools can provide in-person classes for students in third grade and lower, for English learners and summer camps in school buildings. In the third phase, all students can return to in-person classes if social distancing requirements are met.
To get to the second phase, a school must submit a reopening plan to the Northam administration.
Dunnavant said in-person schooling is important not only for a student’s quality of education, but also to help students with food insecurities and to screen for mental health and other risk factors. She cited the American Academy of Pediatrics, which urged states to find a way to provide in-person schooling for students and said children are less likely than the general population to have COVID-19 symptoms and to get a severe illness resulting from COVID-19.
Virtual learning should be an option for students, Dunnavant said, but not an obligation. She said Northam’s guidelines have confused schools and caused them to develop plans that do not provide in-person schooling for every student five days a week.
Dunnavant said lawmakers also should work on providing greater investments in schools and teachers. She said schools should be granted some level of immunity from COVID-19 related lawsuits so they will be encouraged to open.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, also has said the upcoming school year must be addressed.
"[Northam] issued a statement on the special session [Friday] with no mention of addressing the looming crisis in public education and the thousands of children who will be negatively impacted," Gilbert said in a tweet. "Hoping things will improve is not a plan of action, and kids need to be in school."
The @GovernorVA issued a statement on the special session today with no mention of addressing the looming crisis in public education and the thousands of children who will be negatively impacted. Hoping things will improve is not a plan of action, and kids need to be in school.— Delegate Todd Gilbert (@cToddGilbert) July 17, 2020
Democrats intend to revisit the state's biennial budget that passed earlier this year and reconsider some education-related spending initiatives that were axed because of the economic uncertainty caused by the response to COVID-19, but they have not indicated they intend to override Northam’s guidance for schools. Some initiatives they will reconsider based on new revenue projections include teacher pay raises, more early childhood education spending and tuition-free community college.
"The House of Delegates looks forward to taking action to address the impact of COVID-19 on our biennial budget and passing laws that will help the Commonwealth recover from this pandemic,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said in a statement. “We are committed to working together to support our economy, our schools and Virginians in every corner of the Commonwealth during these unprecedented times."
The office of Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the offices of the Democratic leadership for the House and Senate Education committees.
The Legislature's special session is scheduled to convene Aug. 18.