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Virginia Senate passes bill requiring schools to offer in-person instruction

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A bill that would require local school divisions to offer in-person classes passed the Senate Tuesday with help from a handful of Democrats, who joined their Republican colleagues in approving the measure.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, the influential chair of the chamber’s Finance Committee, both voted for the legislation. They were joined by Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond and Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack — all vocal supporters of returning students to the classroom.

The one-line bill would require local school districts to provide in-person instruction to all students if their parents or guardians so request. Sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, the bill does not have an emergency clause attached, which means it wouldn’t go into effect until July.

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H.M. Pearson Principal Mark T. Marchinetti greets students with a COVID-safe elbow bump on Jan. 12.

The legislation faces an uphill battle in the House. And Gov. Ralph Northam has emphasized local choice in school reopening decisions. But those realities didn’t derail a debate that lasted more than an hour and saw most senators chime in on the floor. 

“As a doctor, I have to support the science,” said Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN. “And the science says it’s safe for these students to return to the classroom.”

Virginia legislators have considered a slew of measures focused on school closures throughout the pandemic, both in the current 2021 legislative session and a nearly three-month special session last fall. Most of the bills — including a measure that would require local school divisions to provide vouchers to parents if they didn’t offer in-person classes — died quickly in the General Assembly’s Democratic-controlled committees.

But Tuesday’s vote also underscored changing attitudes on school closures since the beginning of the pandemic. Even some opponents of the bill agreed that it was better for students to attend classes in-person, arguing instead that a mandate would place an unfair burden on many local districts. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, said she was “reluctantly” voting against the bill based on the difficulty — and cost — of implementing measures to stop COVID-19 from spreading in schools.

Northam has also shifted his messaging on school closures since the start of the pandemic. In mid-January, he ordered local divisions to start making plans for resuming in-person classes, saying the “starting point” should be how they could reopen schools safely. The Virginia Department of Education also released new guidance emphasizing that classes could resume even in areas with high community spread if schools effectively implemented mitigation measures.

Given the governor’s most recent messaging on schools, some Senate Republicans, including Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, blamed teachers’ unions for the continued closures. But those arguments were also widely criticized by senators who voted against the bill.

“Teachers have been working twice as hard,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “They’re planning double the classes while handling these staggered schedules.” 

According to the Virginia Department of Education, 56 of the state’s 132 school divisions are operating entirely or partially in-person as of Jan. 26, compared to 36 as of Sept. 8. Fairfax County, one of Virginia’s largest divisions, outlined plans on Tuesday to return students to a hybrid learning model by March 16.

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