The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia Democrats to unveil plan to reopen schools as political pressure mounts

Virginia Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) is a public school teacher proposing a bill to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction.
Virginia Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) is a public school teacher proposing a bill to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Democrats in the House of Delegates are set to unveil legislation on Monday to get students across Virginia back into public school classrooms by summer, signaling a way forward for a topic that has become increasingly politically urgent as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

The proposal calls for school systems to devise plans for both in-person and virtual instruction during the 2021-2022 academic year that follow federal health guidelines. It includes protections for schools or teachers to insist on remote, online sessions in the event of an outbreak or serious health concerns.

On Friday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rolled out guidelines for reopening schools, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has called for Virginia systems to offer an in-person option by March 15.

Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly have been pressing the issue for weeks with Democrats, who control both chambers, and reopening schools is a hot topic for GOP candidates in this year’s governor’s race. Earlier this month, the state Senate approved a bipartisan bill that consists of a single line calling for all school systems to offer a choice of virtual or in-person learning.

But the issue has been sensitive in the House of Delegates, where Democrats have cited the concerns of teachers unions and communities of color — which have been particularly hard hit by the virus — that reopening too soon could pose health dangers. Some school systems around the state have already begun returning students to classrooms, while others have not.

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The measure being introduced Monday in a House subcommittee meeting, which The Washington Post previewed under an agreement not to publicize it in advance, was crafted with the support of House leadership and in consultation with the Northam administration.

“The Governor appreciates efforts to ensure school re-opening is consistent with health guidelines, respects the constitutional authority of school districts, and prioritizes the safety of students, teachers, and staff,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said via email. She added that he stands by the March 15 date, though, which this bill would not achieve.

If passed in its current form, it would take effect June 1.

Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a public school teacher, said he would offer the plan as a substitute for the Senate bill during Monday’s meeting of a House education subcommittee.

“This seeks to get kids back in school in a responsible and responsive way,” VanValkenburg said in an interview.

The Senate bill — introduced by Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and co-sponsored by two Democrats — has no timetable, simply mandating that all schools offer both in-person and virtual instruction.

“That’s a permanent education policy change,” VanValkenburg said. “I don’t think most Virginians want that.”

As a high school government teacher in Henrico County outside Richmond, VanValkenburg spent all of the fall semester teaching online. His school system will resume in-person instruction in March, though students will have the option of virtual classes.

“I’m ready to go back,” VanValkenburg said. “Nothing beats in-person learning.”

Some of his students have clearly suffered during the online-only semester, he said, adding that he worries about the long-term effect on both their academics and their mental health.

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But not everyone is ready to resume at the same time, he said, so his bill includes flexibility. School systems would each devise their own plans based on CDC guidance, and they would have the option to dial up or down the amount of in-person and virtual classrooms as situations change.

It would also affect summer school programs.

“It’s making sure that each community can get to in-person in a way that fits where they’re at with the virus,” VanValkenburg said.

The measure has the support of Democratic leaders. In an emailed statement, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) called it “serious legislation to get our kids back at their desks by the start of the next school year while keeping our teachers and school staff safe.”

If it gets through the committee, the bill would have to win approval of the full House, then go back to the Senate.

Republicans have accused Democrats of failing to act on an issue that’s important to Virginians. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) introduced a budget amendment on Friday that was similar to the Senate bill, calling for both in-person and virtual learning at all school systems.

“These kids need to be back in school,” Gilbert said during House floor debate, held virtually via videoconference. “This is a lost year that we will never get back, and it cannot go on a day longer.”

Democrats voted down his amendment, promising that related legislation was on the way.