A bill requiring Virginia schools to offer full-time, in-person learning is on its way to the House of Delegates.
Senate Bill 1303, which had bipartisan sponsorship, was presented to the House Education Committee on Monday.
Virginia Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who’s a sponsor of the bill, said it will have schools open safely, make sure teachers and school staff have access to COVID-19 vaccines, but won’t force students back into in-person learning.
“Folks are able to learn virtually if they have medical reasons that they feel are important or if their community is just a little bit more wary of going back,” said VanValkenburg, who represents Henrico County.
The bill would allow teachers with an ADA waiver to teach virtually and it would create public health guard rails.
“If there’s a high level of spread in the school, the school can be shut down, if that’s necessary. The schools are able to be agile with that,” VanValkenburg said.
He said the bill comes with a self-destruct clause.
“We are not making policy. We are responding to extraordinary times and so this bill would go out of effect Aug. 1, 2022,” VanValkenburg said.
Where the bill differs from the legislation lawmakers saw last week is that this bill has more detailed guidelines defining in-person instruction and requires school boards to offer in-person education for the minimal number hours required annually.
Joint sponsor, Republican Virginia State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, also of Henrico County, said there is plenty of data that shows how vital it is to return students to in-person learning.
“Undoubtedly, the No. 1 health care crisis we have now in Virginia is what our children are suffering — increased suicide rates, depression, increased suicide ideation, learning loss, jeopardy in safety,” Dunnavant said. “We need our most valuable schools all open again because they are such a great value and do so much more than give curriculum to children.”
On top of that, she said the numbers show mothers, and the family financial situation, also are suffering due to continued school closings.
“Working mothers have the highest unemployment rate. After all of our efforts for equality in employment, we have had a huge setback with untold jeopardy for moms going forward,” Dunnavant said. “The infrastructure of schools is a necessary component of the stability of the family.”
During discussions, House Republicans pushed for an emergency clause to force school districts to enact the law immediately.
“If this is important enough to do in June and July, it is important enough to do today,” said Republican Del. Glenn Davis, as he proposed the additional clause. Davis represents Virginia Beach.
VanValkenburg vocally opposed the addition.
“We have over 100 school systems who are all in different places who all have different needs,” VanValkenburg said. “I think it’s an appropriate thing to do, if we pass a bill, to give them time to adapt to this and do not force it down their throats with an emergency clause.”
The emergency clause failed.
The bill passed the House Education Committee by a 17-3 vote and now heads to the full House of Delegates.