Legislation that would require local school divisions in Virginia to make in-person learning available to all students advanced out of the Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday with some bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 1303, introduced by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), just barely passed out of the committee by an 8-7 vote. All six Republicans voted in favor of the bill and two Democrats joined, while the rest of the committee members opposed.
The bill, which has short and simple language, does not say anything about getting rid of the virtual learning option, instead calling for the parents or guardians to choose the instructional method for children, and not the school division as has been the case for the first half of the academic year.
“[This is important] because the science shows the damage of no in-person learning to a significant portion of children is so staggering,” Dunnavant, who is an OB-GYN outside of her legislative duties, said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “We must respond by making sure they are safe and succeeding.”
Dunnavant also said that there is no evidence to defend not having in-person learning, especially since certain public and private schools, as well as child care facilities, have been open during COVID-19.
In Virginia, the adverse effects of virtual learning on children have become evident during the pandemic. For example, an internal study conducted by Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest division in the Commonwealth, found an 83 percent increase in middle and high school students earning “F” grades in two or more classes.
SB 1303 is the legislative side of a push by a group of bipartisan Senators to get Virginia’s schools reopened and kids back in the classroom. Several weeks ago, Dunnavant and Sens. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City) and Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), who are both co-sponsors on the bill, held a press conference to bring attention to the matter.
At the press conference, Petersen said he planned to introduce a budget amendment that would tie a portion of state funding allocated for education to whether or not a school division has the option for in-person learning.
Dunnavant told The Star that if her legislation does not pass the Senate, she would support Petersen’s amendment.
After leaving the decision making entirely up the school divisions for the first half of the academic year, Governor Ralph Northam and his administration changed its tone in the past weeks as research increasingly suggests that school reopenings are unlikely to have significant impacts on community transmission if rates are low and the schools have health and safety measures in place.
“While we must remain vigilant regarding the prevention and spread of SARS-CoV-2, we need to balance this important objective with the shared goal of providing in-person educational instruction to the children of Virginia,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver and James Lane, Virginia superintendent of public instruction, wrote in a joint letter to local school leaders and health directors.
The final decision of offering in-person learning is still up to the individual school districts, but the threat of decreased state funding and the push from the governor’s administration could lead to more schools opening back up.
As of January 26, 42 out of 132 school divisions in Virginia are operating under fully remote learning, while 75 districts have opted for varying models of hybrid instruction, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.
With SB 1303 having just moved to the full Senate, it will be a couple of sessions before a passage vote on the floor occurs, but Dunnavant said she thinks the bill will pass because it has backing from Republicans and three Democrats at the moment.
“If you believe in science, you’ve got to vote yes for this bill,” Dunnavant said.
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