Virginia Senate Tells Schools It’s Time to Reopen

By Brian Carlton

February 3, 2021

Senate wants school districts to reopen, but this bill doesn’t really do that. Also, it doesn’t take effect for five months.

RICHMOND-It’s time to open up. The Virginia Senate wanted to send that message to school districts across the Commonwealth Tuesday. By a 26-13 vote, senators passed a bill requiring all schools to make in-person learning available. 

However, the bill is meant to be more of an editorial than an order, senators said. Even if the House adopts it, the bill wouldn’t take effect until July 1. Also, as some lawmakers pointed out Tuesday, the bill is literally one line. It simply says “each local school division in the Commonwealth shall make virtual and in-person learning available to all students by choice of the student’s parent or guardian.” If that sounds like the hybrid model many districts are already using, that’s because it is. But without funding attached to help pay for needed updates or equipment, without any other support, some senators questioned why the bill was needed. 

“Pre-COVID, we had teachers asking parents to donate clorox wipes,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said. “So if we’re gonna do this, we need to make sure all of our districts have the resources they need.” 

And that includes funding. Without it, she said, nothing will change. The Assembly will pass this bill and the districts and teachers will once again be forced to figure out funding on their own or again ask parents for help.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Richmond) echoed those concerns. An educator herself, Hashmi pointed out the bill is vague, with very few actual details. She also pointed out that instead of helping, the Senate could actually hurt districts with this. Districts would have to possibly rethink their own reopening plans, to follow the state’s timeline. 

‘We Are Losing a Generation’ 

Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant filed the bill. Dunnavant, who works as an OB-GYN, asked her colleagues Tuesday to “listen to the science.” She said there’s no evidence to support keeping kids out of the classroom, referring to studies that show children are less likely to get the virus. That includes information from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Mayo Clinic

Dunnavant and other senators said some children simply can’t work well in a remote setting and as a result, they’re falling behind. 

“We are losing a generation of children,” Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) said. Petersen signed on as co-patron of the bill. 

Democrat Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) also spoke up in favor. He pointed to the fact that the Catholic school his children attend has been able to operate without any outbreaks. He and others also pointed to the fact some districts, like Hanover County, have constantly stayed open in some form during the pandemic. Hanover announced plans last week to play their high school fall sports schedule later this month. 

Out of 132 school divisions in Sept. 2020, 10 went in-person four or five days a week and 67 practiced a fully-remote model. On Dec. 12, 2020, nine divisions remained in-person, while 52 stayed fully-remote. By Jan. 26, 13 divisions practiced in-person learning and 43 remained fully-remote. That’s based on data from the Virginia Board of Education. 

The data also showed that for pre-K to second grade, 68 divisions reported over 50% of their students were at or above expected levels in reading. A total of 56 divisions said the same for math.

In third, fourth and fifth grades, 63 divisions reported that over 50% of their students were at or above expected levels in reading, followed by 57 divisions reporting the same average in math.

RELATED: How Did COVID-19 Affect Virginia Schools?

What About The Teachers? 

The problem, multiple Senate members said, is that students aren’t the only ones involved here. We have to think about more than just the kids when talking about reopening. 

What about the teachers?” Lionel Spruill (D-Chesapeake) asked. “If we are going to do this, don’t you think that we got to make sure the teachers, the principals, the staff, the bus drivers have the vaccine and are safe?”

In some districts, teachers have started to receive the vaccine. However, it will be at least March before all teachers have been vaccinated, Health Department officials said at the Jan. 29 press conference. Another issue is a lack of substitute teachers. Districts across the state are struggling to fill substitute spots, which turns into a problem if a teacher has to be quarantined.

McClellan also pointed out that teachers and school staff members tend to be in the high-risk category. She cautioned her colleagues that the vaccine isn’t a magic wand that will make the virus suddenly disappear.

“We better not fool ourselves…that the impacts went away,” McClellan said, “because they are going to be with us for a long time.”

SB1303 now goes to the Virginia House for a vote.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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