Citing school staffing shortages, Senators Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) are proposing the creation of an Education Reserve Corps in Virginia.
“As we’ve known, other than getting people vaccinated and keeping them alive, the most important issue, and we’ve been consistent about this, is reopening schools,” Petersen said on the Senate floor on Monday. He pointed to staffing parallels in the medical field.
“It seems to me if we can have volunteers who have a skill set in healthcare and create a medical reserve corps and organize them and bring them back into the workplace bring them back to vaccinate kids, we can also organize people to come back and teach our children,” he said.
Petersen said the Senate and Governor Ralph Northam have already committed to bringing kids back into class. “The bottom line is, the kids are going to come back, and that’s going to be over a million children. Now the question is: who’s going to educate these children? We know that our educational workforce will not look the same as it did a year ago.”
“For 10 months, too many school doors in Virginia have remained locked,” Dunnavant said in a press release. “We have seen that COVID-19 is not spreading within schools in Virginia and nationwide that are open, and that children are much less likely to spread the disease. We cannot let staffing issues keep our schools closed.”
She said, “This is an unprecedented time that requires some creativity and flexibility to get our children back in the classroom learning.”
The senators proposed that the volunteer corps include former educators, honorably or medically discharged military, and college graduates with teaching degrees or advanced degrees in specific fields. At a press conference Monday, Petersen said the corps would be mostly volunteer, but that long-term volunteers could potentially receive compensation. Dunnavant said there would have to be some kind of safety checks and balances around staffing the corps. But she said that local moms, experts, and school superintendents were excited about the idea.
There are several ways the proposal could become a practical reality. Petersen said this is something local districts could begin doing even without a state-level plan.
“I think the school divisions could start doing this right now in terms of creating a list of people in the community who are interested,” he told The Virginia Star. “I’ve already reached out to Fairfax County Public Schools, Siobhan reached out to Goochland and Henrico. So they can start it on their own.”
Dunnavant said it could also be introduced as a bill by unanimous consent, or it could be inserted into budget proposals through federal funds.
“When I talked to [Northam’s Secretary of Education Atif Qarni], he talked about using it to bring down CARES Act funding. So there may be a CARES Act provision that actually speaks to this idea of kind of bringing in substitute teachers,” Petersen said. “My vision is that they would be volunteers. It may be if they go beyond a certain time that they would have to be paid.”
He added that Governor Ralph Northam could implement the plan through executive order.
“I talked to the Governor. I talked with him, I talked with Atif,” he said. “Listen, we’re all on the same page now. I mean a month ago I wasn’t sure. Now we’re all on the same page.”
Although Northam and legislators are beginning to call for schools to reopen, organizations including the Virginia Education Association have said that it is too soon.
“For the last year, instead of having the conversation about how to open, we’ve been having the conversation about do we open,” Dunnavant said in the press conference. “People have gotten emotionally tied. They have strong biases that are not necessarily based on the scientific evidence.”
“The governor needs to be more clear. We need to have absolute clarity that schools must open, period. They really need to open five days a week,” she said. “It’s long past having a conversation about what is the right thing to do, where is the risk. The risk is with the children, it is not with the adults. We need to move forward and get these schools open.”
– – –