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Bill requiring in-person classes passes Senate

BY ZACHARY KLOSKO

Capital News Service

A bill which would require in-person instruction, along with virtual learning, be made available to Virginia public school students upon request passed the Virginia Senate Tuesday, Feb. 2.

Senate Bill 1303, introduced by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, aims to make sure students have the opportunity to attend in-person instruction. The student’s parent or guardian must make the request, according to the bill. The legislation passed the Senate 26-13.

The bill does not lay out specific expectations of local school divisions in regard to in-person learning, according to the bill’s text. The original version of the bill required the measure to go into effect once the legislation passed the Virginia General Assembly, but an amended version of the bill removed that requirement. Without that stipulation, the bill will take effect on July 1, according to Dunnavant.

Many Virginia school systems, including Fairfax County, Hanover County and Alexandria City Public Schools, begin summer break in mid-June, according to their academic calendars.

During the bill’s committee hearing, Dunnavant said that it is more dangerous for children to not be in the classroom.

“We have amazing evidence to show that being in school is safe for both students and teachers,” Dunnavant said. “We have profoundly disturbing evidence that not having in-person school for a body of our students is possibly, irrevocably damaging.

“I think it is probably the most important thing that we can do this session,” Dunnavant added.

He stressed the need for innovation in educating students in grade school similar to how many colleges were able to provide in-person education for students.

“If you look at the interventions and the innovations that they have created to make it safe, and again, without outbreaks, you would be so proud,” Dunnavant said on the Senate floor before the bill passed.

Dunnavant’s comments come after 20 active cases of COVID-19 among students and teachers led Hurt Elementary School in Pittsylvania County to abruptly stop in-person classes last week, according to the Danville Register & Bee.

Chesterfield County Public Schools is trying a mixed approach, sending some elementary students to in-person classes while keeping middle and high school students fully online, according to NBC 12. Chesterfield returned to virtual learning after Thanksgiving when COVID-19 cases spiked. Chesterfield County School Board will discuss a broader return to in-person learning on Feb. 9.

The reactions to the bill from senators were mixed. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, called the bill “a slap in the face” to school board members despite expressing her support for the goal the bill was trying to achieve. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, said it is critical that students returned to in-person schooling soon, but criticized the bill’s terms for being too vague.

During the committee hearing for the measure, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said that the people in communities are the ones that should make decisions concerning school operations.

“It should not, in my opinion, be those of us from all over the state deciding what should happen in someone else’s jurisdiction,” Howell said.

Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman said in an email he strongly opposed the bill. He called the legislation an “unnecessary and ill-advised state mandate.”

The bill now moves to the House of Delegates.