As Schools Prepare to Reopen, Assembly Tries to Get Involved

By Brian Carlton

February 23, 2021

Proposal requires schools to offer in-person learning, as they prepare to do that anyway.

RICHMOND-Across the Commonwealth, students will return to in-person learning over the next three weeks. Some schools are already meeting face to face, while others are still working out their plan. So why is the General Assembly pushing through a bill that requires in-person learning, when it’s already happening? 

Multiple delegates and members of the public asked that question Monday, as the House Education Committee debated SB1303. Created by State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), the bill requires each school division to “provide in-person instruction to each student enrolled”. Districts have to offer it for at least the minimum number of required instructional hours and no, chatting by video screen doesn’t count. 

The bill specifies that in-person learning means “any form of instructional interaction between teachers and students that occurs in person and in real time.” Basically, the bill says it’s time to get back to class. It would take effect July 1, in time for summer school, but not for the rest of this semester. 

“Everybody wants what’s best for kids,” said Del. Schuyler Van Valkenburg (D-Henrico), who worked on the bill with Dunnavant. “I think we can get to a place where we can open and open responsibly.” 

Van Valkenburg argued that this was basically like a blueprint, something the schools could refer to as they planned to reopen. 

RELATED: Virginia Senate Tells Schools It’s Time to Reopen

Schools Are Already Going Back

But again, as officials from multiple districts pointed out, that’s already in the works, so why does the state need to step in? David Woodard’s been a member of the Tazewell County School Board for 14 years. He has no problems with kids going to class. In fact, his district’s held in-person learning for 120 days now. His problem with SB1303 is that it removes local control. Instead of school boards deciding when to open the doors, the General Assembly would make the decision for them.

Let local people solve local problems, Woodward said. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work here, he argued. Different districts have different needs due to the pandemic. One may be dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, while another is ready for a regular schedule. State officials don’t know those details, but locals do. And if the local residents don’t like the decision, there’s a solution for that too. 

“If your county isn’t doing what you want them to do, there’s an election coming,” Woodward said. “Vote them out.” 

Woodward’s comments were echoed by Dr. Walter Clemons, Gloucester County Schools Superintendent. His district also has kids back in class. But Clemons, who was named Region III Superintendent of the Year in 2016, said that should be a local decision.
Fairfax City Public Schools offers another example. The district brought more than 8,000 students back to in-person learning last week. 

“Our buildings and staff were ready, our mitigation measures were in place and there were smiles on the faces of our students when they walked back into their classrooms,” FCPS officials said in a statement to the media. 

Kindergartners return to FCPS this week and all the district’s students will be back in the classroom by March 16. 

A Map Forward

Other districts tell a similar story. In fact, out of the entire state, only Sussex County and Richmond City Schools don’t have a plan yet on when students will return. And the Richmond School Board is expected to make that decision within the next month. 

With that in mind, Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond), questioned the need for this bill. He also pointed out that some districts might be slower in reopening due to problems with the physical structure. It just takes them a bit longer to figure out how to adjust, when so many pieces need repairs. Dunnavant responded that if schools needed help, they should have asked. 

“I wish we had spent this whole session having a conversation about what the schools need,” Dunnavant said. “I firmly believe that if schools came and said we need 1,000 portable classrooms, we need this, we need that, we would have responded in kind. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where there’s a lack of decisiveness over what the imperative is.”

Bourne pointed out these aren’t needs suddenly popping up. 

“I think school divisions, teachers and employees have been advocating for additional resources for a long time,” Bourne said. “But we have not seen fit to do that yet.” 

Multiple School Recovery Bills Tabled 

Dunnavant’s claim also might come as a surprise to one of her Senate colleagues. Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin Co.) filed multiple bills this session, as he does every session, to try and address that issue. There was SB 1106, which would create a Public School Assistance Fund. This would seem to be a critical part in any school’s reopening, as it would provide grants to help local districts repair or replace the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical or plumbing systems. It’s sitting in the House Appropriations Committee. 

Stanley also filed SB 1109, which would have let voters decide in November if they want to issue a series of bonds to pay for modernizing schools. It also currently sits in the House Appropriations Committee. 

The bills Stanley filed are also worth mentioning because of what’s not included in SB 1303. There’s no funding attached to help districts speed up reopening. In fact, there’s no money at all. That was something Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) raised concerns about when the Senate voted on this bill. Without extra funding, 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, she argued. 

None of the committee members made a motion Monday to add any funding provisions. The only attempted change came from Del. Glenn Davis, who wanted to add an emergency clause, to make the bill go into effect immediately. That proposal died on a 13-9 vote. The group instead sent the bill as is to the full House, which will vote on it later this week.

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

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