Bill takes effect July 1. Some Virginia schools are already back, however, while others return in March.

RICHMOND- It’s time to go back to class. The General Assembly wanted to deliver that message Thursday, as they passed a bill ordering Virginia schools to offer in-person instruction. There were just two problems. First, the bill doesn’t take effect until July 1. Second, it comes less than three weeks before most schools in the state had already planned to reopen. 

After an earlier vote by the House, the Senate signed off Thursday on 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. 

“That means the teacher and the children are in the classroom, actually teaching and interacting,” Dunnavant told the Senate Thursday. “It allows families to opt out of in-person education and choose virtual. But it likewise gives guidelines that will be developed by the Department of Education to ensure that those children that choose virtual are actually succeeding.” 

If that sounds a lot like the hybrid model several districts are currently using, it’s because it is. York County, for example, started back in-person with a hybrid model Feb. 22. Just like in this bill, families can opt out and stay virtual if they want. Salem Schools, meanwhile, have been operating on a hybrid schedule since August. Across the state, less than 42 districts still remained virtual as of Feb. 22. Out of those, all but two have plans in place to return to in-person learning within the next month. Sussex County and Richmond City Schools are the only two that have yet to determine when kids are coming back. 

RELATED: Time to Return: Virginia Schools Given Deadline to Finalize Reopening Plans

Still No Money Attached

Dunnavant told the Senate she created the bill to serve as a blueprint for schools. However, the final version adopted Thursday won’t take effect until July 1. Even the two districts currently staying remote expect to be open by then. That July 1 start date was a compromise, put in place in order to get the bill through the Virginia House. However, Dunnavant said she hopes the date will change. Gov. Ralph Northam has the authority to add an emergency clause to the bill, so schools would be forced to open immediately. 

Northam has been a supporter of the movement to reopen schools for some time. Earlier this month, he ordered all districts to get plans in place by the middle of next month. 

“In person learning won’t look the same for every school division,” Northam said. “[But] we can do this and we must do this. By March 15, I expect every school division to make [an] in-person learning plan.” 

The biggest question still remained on Thursday, as SB1303 doesn’t have any funding attached to it. Despite the fact lawmakers acknowledged school districts have to make changes in order to follow COVID-19 restrictions, they apparently don’t expect any of that to cost money.

“There is no anticipated state fiscal impact resulting from the provisions of this bill,” the financial impact statement reads. “Any impact to local schools divisions is indeterminate.”

What About Summer School?

As Northam has encouraged districts to either expand the current semester or enlarge summer school, if there’s no extra funding in the revised state budget, it’ll be up to districts to figure things out. 

The options don’t just take time to plan. They’re also expensive to run. Plus you have to negotiate some sort of payment plan with teachers, who work on 10-month contracts. They’re off during the summer months and can’t be required to work beyond the contracted hours. Earlier this month, Northam said he thought teachers will give up part of their summer break to help.  

“I’ve had discussions with a lot of teachers,” Northam said. “I think the majority of our teachers want to be part of the solution.” 

Those teachers who do take part in the summer sessions will receive some type of additional payment, although no one can still say what that would look like. Northam and Dr. James Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, have said previously they would use some of the remaining CARES Act funding to provide funding. 

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@couriernewsroom.com.