RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A bill requiring school districts to offer in-person learning by July 1, 2021, is headed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk after winning bipartisan support in the General Assembly.
Now, some lawmakers are pushing Northam to attach an emergency clause to the measure, which would allow it to take effect immediately with the stroke of a pen.
“Is July still too far away? It is,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), who introduced the bill. “There is no reason our kids couldn’t have been in school since last fall. All the data, information, and experience we have supports that.”
As of Friday afternoon, the governor’s office didn’t take a stance on the matter. In a text, Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said he would “carefully review the bill when it reaches his desk.”
When the session started, Dunnavant’s legislation was just one line long, reading, “That each local school division in the Commonwealth shall make in-person learning available to all students by choice of the student’s parent or guardian.”
After passing in the Senate, Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D- Henrico), a public school teacher, spearheaded efforts to amend the measure. The changes opened the door for broader bipartisan support and an endorsement from the Virginia Education Association, a union representing more than 40,000 educators across the Commonwealth.
As it stands now, Dunnavant said the bill requires students and teachers to learn in a classroom for five days a week. The definition of “in-person learning” was further clarified to prevent school districts from adopting hybrid models.
The legislation allows families to continue with virtual education upon request. The latest version of the bill also creates exceptions to the in-person learning requirement when a school experiences a severe coronavirus outbreak, or a teacher needs to quarantine.
Another change allows the bill to sunset after the 2021-2022 school year.
“Before, it actually would have dramatically changed education policy because it wasn’t tied to COVID specifically,” VanValkenburg said.
In its current form, VanValkenburg said the bill is both symbolic and substantive. Critically, he said it sets clear standards and gives parents time to plan after an unpredictable year.
“We’re creating a baseline of expectations. I think one thing that has really frustrated parents and teachers and really everybody is that they’ve felt like there are these constantly moving the goalposts,” VanValkenburg said.
As of Friday morning, Yarmosky said just two Virginia school districts had yet to make plans for in-person learning: Sussex and Richmond.
Del. Jeff Bourne, who represents Richmond in the House of Delegates, is one of twelve total Democrats who voted against the bill. Bourne said the age of the city’s school buildings and space restrictions could present unique challenges for a safe reopening.
“Our ability to socially distance in a way that we all know works to combat this coronavirus is nearly impossible,” Bourne said. “We have a moral responsibility, a moral obligation, to allow communities to do what they see fit based on the guidance.”
After some discussion early on, lawmakers decided not to withhold education funding from school districts who refuse to comply with the requirement.
“The state doesn’t control anything; we incentivize,” Dunnavant said. “We failed to do so financially, but now we’re doing it with language.”
When the bill takes effect, Dunnavant said parents would have grounds to sue localities that refuse to offer a full-time, in-person option. If Northam chooses to add an emergency clause, she said it would give the governor’s calls for school districts to reopen by March 15th more enforcement power.
“I don’t think this is straying very far from what the governor has already asserted. He’s said he wants schools open by March 15th. He could use this as his definition of what that means,” Dunnavant said.
Right now, Dunnavant said Northam’s guidance is “un-interpretable,” “unclear,” and is contributing to “decision paralysis” among school boards in some cases.
Even if Northam does add an emergency clause, the General Assembly would have to reconvene to approve or reject the amended bill. The chances of it passing appear slim after the House shot down the idea earlier this week.
“To just kind of throw it to the localities and say ‘hey you have like two days to figure this out’ when from Alexandria to Abingdon we have hundreds of different communities with different resources and needs isn’t responsible governing,” VanValkenburg said.