Three Virginia state Senators called for Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday to reopen public schools across the Commonwealth and mandate in-person learning as an option for families struggling with virtual instruction.
Just hours before the General Assembly kicked off its 2021 session, Senators Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City), Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) held a press conference to discuss the matter.
“To me, reopening the schools is the number one issue, it’s the most important issue,” Petersen said.
“All we’re asking is to reopen in-person education [and] mandate in-person education, and if families don’t feel safe, they don’t have to go, but the school divisions must offer it,” Petersen continued.
Petersen also said the group of legislators wanted to see the governor use the same urgency for reopening schools as he did when shutting down all public schools back on March 12 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Virginia.
Furthermore, Morrissey said that the Virginians who are suffering the most from school divisions being fully virtual are low-income families as well as single parents who act as the sole provider for their children, often working multiple jobs, and do not have time to help with or proctor online schooling.
“Not providing an option for those families to go to school is simply wrong,” Morrissey said. “We as legislators have a duty to lift up our constituents that need the most help and I represent some challenged districts in Petersburg and Hopewell and in parts of Richmond City.”
In terms of the safety of sending kids back to school, Dunnavant, who is a doctor along with her legislative duties, said that children are less likely to contract the virus or be seriously ill and have a lower risk of transmission to teachers or other students.
Dunnavant also warned about the side effects stemming from virtual instruction that are currently impacting children.
“Stay at home does not mean safe at home, and many of our kids are not necessarily safe at home,” Dunnavant explained. “We are seeing the evidence now. We see increased depression and suicide ideation, we have kids that are living in trauma-filled kinds of environments, we have abuse that we know is going on unrecognized and this is documented across the country with studies that have been done.”
The senators’ desire for Northam to reopen schools extends all the way to the state budget, which the Assembly will be passing during this legislative session, and the governor’s amendments that call for $500 million in funding for K-12 education and bonuses for teachers.
Petersen said he would be putting together a budget amendment this week that would require school divisions to offer in-person learning in order to receive state funding and that he would not vote for the budget if the change was not included.
“We aren’t just going to write that check,” Petersen said. “I represent taxpayers as well as children and the bottom line is without our three votes, you aren’t going to have a budget, so I hope that makes sense that we are not just here exercising our jaws.”
Before holding Wednesday’s press conference, the lawmakers first made their call for schools to reopen in an op-ed piece on Sunday.
As of December, only nine out of Virginia’s 132 school divisions are operating in-person, meaning all students attending school for four or more days, while 52 districts have gone fully remote. The majority of school divisions (71) have chosen for their students to learn through hybrid instruction models, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
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