Democrats forwarded a bill that would require schools to offer in-person learning by July 1 to the floor of the House of Delegates in a committee meeting Monday.
The bill was originally composed of one line proposed by a Senator, Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), that simply required schools to offer in person learning immediately, due to an emergency clause.
After a number of Senate Democrats joined Republicans to pass the bill without the emergency clause, House Democrats have been shaping the bill in that chamber’s education committee.
The bill would require school districts to offer in-person learning for students, if the children’s parents opt for it. It requires teachers and staff to be offered a vaccine before it goes into effect. And it guarantees teachers will teach virtually if they have COVID-19 or were exposed to the Coronavirus.
School boards can return students to virtual learning if health risks in a school become too high. School boards would determine that risk based on conversations with the local health department, based on guidance released by the state department of health. The risk assessment would look at a school in question only, not the spread of COVID in the wider community.
Lawmakers have had to try to balance different concerns. Teachers are concerned instruction in person would put their health at risk. Parents and doctors have argued children are struggling with virtual classes and social isolation.
“We have clear data-driven evidence of an alarming decline in the mental, behavioral, academic, and general wellbeing of the children we care for in Virginia,” said Mike Martin of the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in the committee hearing.
Stacey Haney of the Virginia School Boards Association, who said that schools will need money to address infrastructure to safely mitigate the risk of COVID, spoke against the bill. “There's not sufficient money available to make the physical plants safe for all students in every school in the Commonwealth,” she said.
Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) said that there was money for schools to reopen, pointing to the state’s education budget and federal dollars in the CARES Act. “The Democratic caucus has put our money where our mouth is when it comes to making sure schools have the resources they need,” he said.