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Virginia House Democrats move closer to mandating that schools reopen

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), center left, and Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) at a mass vaccination event in Richmond last month.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), center left, and Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) at a mass vaccination event in Richmond last month. (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Democrats who control the House of Delegates moved closer Monday to requiring that public schools across Virginia offer full-time in-person instruction as soon as this summer, advancing a bipartisan bill as Republicans turned up political pressure.

The bill goes significantly further than a version Democrats introduced last week that would have required schools to offer an in-person option but did not mandate a full weekly schedule as communities wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the new language, schools would have to provide in-person instruction “for at least the minimum number of required instructional hours.” The bill would require school boards to come up with a plan that follows health guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to the maximum extent practicable.”

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It also mandates that teachers and school staffers be provided access to coronavirus vaccine, which they are currently eligible for, and makes allowances for teachers or students with health issues to use remote instruction. Any school system suffering a serious outbreak could resort to virtual-only school.

The legislation would go into effect July 1 — potentially affecting summer school programs — and would expire after the coming school year.

Republicans on the House Education Committee — which approved the bill Monday with a bipartisan vote of 17 to 3 — pushed for an emergency clause to make the requirements immediate. But Democrats resisted, saying school systems need time to prepare.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has called for all school systems to offer an in-person teaching option by March 15, and some systems have already reopened schools. The legislation would create a presumption that fully open schools are the default and that virtual learning is an option, instead of the other way around.

Virginia governor calls on all schools in state to reopen by March 15

“We want to ensure that, come the fall, that we do have a certain amount of a baseline that schools are meeting, and we do want to ensure that there’s no kind of backsliding,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), who introduced the measure. A high school civics teacher, VanValkenburg added that “it’s important that kids can go to school.”

The bill is a substitute for one that passed the full Senate with bipartisan support. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), consisted of a single line that simply required schools to reopen. Dunnavant consulted with VanValkenburg in creating the new version.

House Democrats have been reluctant to issue a blanket mandate, citing concerns raised by teachers unions as well as the skepticism of communities of color, which have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus.

But Republicans have pressed the topic relentlessly, making it an issue in the upcoming elections for governor and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Coronavirus vaccines have become more widely distributed,while parents throughout the state have increasingly called for schools to reopen, in part over concerns that children are not learning well through virtual classrooms.

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“Some, at least, of our Democratic colleagues are either seeing the light or feeling the heat at this point,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said Monday on WRVA radio.

He added that Republicans will continue trying to give the bill an immediate effective date, though Democrats have enough votes to pass it as written without GOP support. The full House is set to debate the measure later this week. If it approves the bill, it will go back to the Senate, which would have to sign off before it could go to Northam to be enacted.

Northam’s office declined to say whether he would sign the bill, but a spokeswoman said the governor had spoken with VanValkenburg and believed the measure would “align” with his expectations.

“The Governor appreciates efforts to ensure school reopening is consistent with health guidelines, respects the constitutional authority of school divisions, and prioritizes the safety of students, teachers, and staff,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement.