RICHMOND — A bill requiring full-time in-person instruction next school year took another step Monday toward becoming law.
The House Education Committee voted 17-3 to report the bill, an amended version of a one-sentence bill passed by the Senate earlier this month, to the full House of Delegates. It could come to floor vote as early as this week.
The Senate still must review and approve the amendments before the bill could become law, but the current version appears to have bipartisan support.
“This is a safe way for us to do the most important thing,” Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who introduced the Senate version of the bill, told the committee Monday. “Undoubtedly, the number one health care crisis we now have in Virginia is what our children are suffering.”
The bill does not take effect immediately. The version, championed by Democrat Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg who has been working with Dunnavant, would take effect July 1.
The original version of the bill would’ve required in-person learning immediately using an emergency clause, but that was taken out before it passed the Senate in a bipartisan vote.
Some House Republicans tried to add the emergency clause back in Monday but were defeated. Dunnavant said she wants it to take effect immediately too, but she doesn’t think it will pass both the House and Senate with that provision.
“I lay the challenge at the feet of the House: if you deem this as important as I do and you want to put an emergency clause on it and you can garner that support, then I will do everything in my power to garner the same support back in the Senate,” Dunnavant said.
Things have changed significantly across the state since Dunnavant first introduced the bill. As of Jan. 26, about 31% of districts had only remote instruction, according to numbers from the Virginia Department of Education.
Since then, the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention come out with new school guidelines and Gov. Ralph Northam set a March 15 date for schools to start in-person instruction.
Those have helped push schools towards reopening. As of Monday, only two districts — Sussex County and Richmond — hadn’t told the state they plan to bring more students back soon. Another 20 remain fully virtual but have plans to bring students back.
VanValkenburg, who chairs the House subcommittee that approved a different version of the bill last week, said that they need to give schools time, given that almost all are already going back.
“I think it’s an appropriate thing, if we pass a bill, to adapt to this and to not force it down their throats with an emergency clause,” VanValkenburg said.
The bill approved by the committee Monday adds some additional detail to the subcommittee version, defining what counts as in-person instruction and clarifying that schools can offer virtual instruction to students whose families request it.
Schools would have to offer full-time instruction and follow CDC mitigation measures “to the maximum extent practicable.” If there are outbreaks in a school building, school districts can take some or all of that school virtual in line with Virginia Department of Health guidelines.
All school district staff are to be offered the vaccine, according to the bill, something that’s been underway for weeks in most of the state. The bill says that teachers who have work accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act should continue to be allowed to teach virtually. It also includes a one-year expiration date.
“We are not making policy. We are responding to extraordinary times,” VanValkenburg said.
The bill has broad support from Democrats following the extensive amendments championed by VanValkenburg, who worked extensively with Dunnavant to find a version that could pass both houses. It also has the support of the Virginia Education Association, which has pushed for teachers to be able to get the vaccine before returning to classrooms.
But some school leaders remain opposed, including the Virginia School Board Association.
It’s the chapter of an ongoing saga about who controls school closings and reopenings. Northam shut down schools unilaterally in March last year, but since the summer, the state has maintained the decision to reopen or not rests in the hands of local school boards. Even Northam’s March 15 deadline is just a strong suggestion — he hasn’t announced any plans to force schools to comply.
Gloucester County superintendent Walter Clemons said he was concerned about the legislature mandating what schools have to offer in fall, especially an all-virtual option for students to opt-in that he said could be expensive for some schools.
Tazewell County School Board member David Woodard told the committee that a mandate from the state prevents schools from adapting to their region. His board threatened to sue Northam over the summer over school closures.
“What works in Northern Virginia doesn’t work in southwest. What works in southwest doesn’t work in Hampton Roads,” Woodard said.
Matt Jones, 757-247-4729, email@example.com
Almost one year to the day that schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Norfolk will bring back some students for in-person learning.
Norfolk had planned to reopen school buildings only after the city hit certain health metrics. But following pressure by Gov. Ralph Northam, who has leaned hard on districts like Norfolk that aren’t yet in-person, the School Board approved a new plan Wednesday night that would let elementary students return mid-March on a hybrid schedule.
“We would want all of our kids in school right now under ideal conditions,” Superintendent Sharon Byrdsong said. The “all” part isn’t possible yet, she said, but the district can make “some” work.
Byrdsong’s proposal, which was approved by the board unanimously, calls for teachers and staff to return to school buildings on March 1. As part of the transition, March 1 and 2 will become planning days for teachers and independent learning days for students.
Students would start returning to buildings March 15 on a hybrid schedule in which part of the class attends in-person Mondays and Tuesdays and the other part attends Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will remain an independent learning day for students.
The first phase includes students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, along with students with disabilities in self-contained classrooms and those learning English in any grade.
On April 12, middle school students will return, followed by high school students April 26.
Virtual will remain an option for any family that does not want to return in-person. About 21% of students have already picked the virtual-only option for the second semester, but Byrdsong said the district will accommodate families who want to change their preferences.
The proposal includes changing some school start times by about 15 minutes to allow for cleaning buses between routes. The 8:15 a.m. start time will move to 8:30 a.m., the 8:55 a.m. start will shift to 9:15 a.m. and the 9:30 a.m. will move to 9:55 a.m.
Schools will be deep cleaned on Wednesdays in between the different groups of students. The district also bought “sanitizing humidifiers” for use in about 750 classrooms where airflow is a concern.
Board members also directed staff to create a dashboard that will publicly show positive student and staff case numbers by school as well as air quality and ventilation test results.
“If we want to get the buy-in and the trust of our parents and teachers, this is critical,” said board member Tanya Bhasin, who proposed the dashboard.
Byrdsong and school board members asked for families’ patience as they work out reopening kinks.
“Everything’s not going to go perfect. This is a new experience for all of us, with the pandemic. I hope everybody will take a deep breath,” board member Lauren Campsen said.
Sara Gregory, 757-469-7484, firstname.lastname@example.org
In the past, people have doubted the work that you put in. Now during this time parents are even more appreciative of the work that you do!!
you’re not at school, you work from home preparing lesson plans,
setting office hours, and weekly Zooms. Even during this crisis you
continue providing as much normalcy to teaching and learning as
possible. You give each and every student an opportunity to be their
best whether working from home or sitting behind a desk.
As the year draws to a close, I am so grateful to the educators, healthcare professionals and public employees we represent for the extraordinary work they do every day to make a difference in our lives. I’ve always encouraged others to thank them, but this year, I’m asking that we go further: Let’s also listen to the teachers and nurses in our lives. They are truth-tellers who can reveal things we need to know about our country.
Let’s listen to teachers about how they stretch themselves to fill the void left when schools lack counselors, nurses and librarians. And, as some politicians brag about “the best economy ever,” educators can tell us about the other side of an inequitable America (link is external): the more than 1.3 million homeless students (link is external) in our public schools, and the 40 percent of Americans who can’t put together $400 in an emergency (link is external).
Let’s listen to teachers about childhood hunger (link is external), which makes it difficult to concentrate and learn. Educators know that, for children who experience food insecurity, school meals should be as standard a school supply as paper and pencils, and the inability to afford school lunch should never be used to shame a child. Educators are outraged that, two years after the GOP gave away $2.3 trillion in tax cuts (link is external), mostly to the wealthiest Americans and corporations, the Trump administration is cutting SNAP (link is external) (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for more than 700,000 people and free school meals for nearly 1 million children (link is external) living in poverty.
Many people marveled at the unprecedented “Red for Ed” movement—and then moved on. We should listen closely to the message that sparked this activism: that budget and policy choices like austerity and syphoning money from public schools fail our students and make teaching an even more draining and financially untenable profession. Educators are telling us what children need to thrive. In Los Angeles (link is external), striking teachers won class size limits, more librarians and a full-time nurse in every school. And in Chicago (link is external), educators secured a pledge that the district will hire more special education teachers and ensure every public school has a nurse and a social worker.
These activist educators know how essential nurses, therapists and other healthcare professionals are. Let’s listen to them, as well. They know that nearly half of America’s children experience trauma (link is external), that the high cost of healthcare forces many to delay care until they are severely ill, and that many families can’t afford the prescription drugs they need (link is external).
Let’s listen to educators who are speaking up against privatization cloaked as “reform.” In Houston, for example, the state’s Republican leadership wants to take over the school district, wresting democratic control from parents and the community. Houston’s public schools have close to an A rating from the state’s accountability system, but state officials have pointed to a single struggling school in their subterfuge to charterize and privatize the district’s public schools. Their ruse defies logic—when your house has a leaky faucet, you don’t put your home up for sale; you fix the things that need repair. Let’s listen to the educators, parents and community leaders who are fighting back and calling for the state to support public education, not sell it off.
Teachers have always had enormous responsibilities—to teach and nurture their students so they have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives; to help them develop judgment to be engaged citizens; and to make our classrooms and schools safe havens for students, especially now, as students fear mass shootings (link is external), and hate and bigotry (link is external) are on the rise.
Today, when many people believe we are in a war on truth, teachers are helping students to think independently and critically, to distinguish facts from falsehoods, and to make arguments in respectful ways. And as the very foundations of America are being undermined, our teachers are also called to be defenders of decency and guardians of democracy. That is why it is so crucial that teachers and all working people have voice at work, in our democracy and in our elections.
This weekend, the AFT and several other conveners hosted a forum on public education (link is external)
in Pittsburgh. Eight candidates for president shared their values and
thoughtful ideas for realizing public education’s role as a ladder of
opportunity for all our children and as a foundation of our democracy.
They understood that if you want to strengthen our country’s future, you
must care about our children and listen to their parents, advocates and
It often feels like we are living in an Alice in
Wonderland moment. As some people claim that up is down and down is up,
teachers are working to set things straight. Let’s listen to them,
because they are educating America’s young people, who all deserve
bright futures and on whom our hopes and aspirations rest. Teachers want
what children need, and that is good for all of us.