William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)

When Virginia senators passed a bill requiring local school divisions to provide in-person instruction by the summer, some anticipated the legislation would face an uphill battle in the House.

Nearly a month later, though, the same legislation is now on the verge of passing both chambers after several rounds of revisions — and mounting pressure to return children to school buildings. 

Just a few days after the Senate vote, Gov. Ralph Northam directed Virginia’s 132 local divisions to begin offering in-person classes by March 15, saying that months of remote learning was “taking a toll on our children and our families.” Northam’s announcement followed a pledge from President Joe Biden to reopen schools within his first 100 days of office, and new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely reopening schools and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in buildings.

Less than two weeks later, House Democrats released a substitute bill that Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, described as a more workable solution for bringing students back to school than the original legislation from Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico.

“We want schools open, too, but we have to do it in a responsible and responsive way” said VanValkenburg, a public school civics teacher who worked with Dunnavant on new compromise legislation. Both lawmakers unveiled the latest version of the bill during a Monday committee meeting, where it passed on a 17-3, bipartisan vote.

The legislation still has to pass both chambers before going to Northam for a final signature. And while the governor hasn’t promised support for the legislation, spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said it “aligns with [his] expectation that that all school divisions across Virginia offer safe, in-person instruction options.”

“Gov. Northam is supportive of the General Assembly’s work to address concerns raised with the legislation as it was originally introduced, and he will review this bill when it comes to his desk,” she said.

It’s a markedly different message than the one state officials conveyed through the summer and fall, when reopening decisions lay “squarely in the hands of local school boards,” according to guidance from the Virginia Department of Education and Department of Health. Frustration over remote learning also gained little traction during an 83-day special session, where Democratic majorities in both chambers quickly killed bills aimed at pressuring schools to reopen.

But in the months since then, there’s been growing evidence that schools don’t contribute significantly to the spread of COVID-19 — or pose a particular risk to students and teachers who return to the classroom.

“We are in a place where we can serve kids,” VanValkenburg said. “So, folks who want to go back, go back, and folks who don’t, don’t, and we just have to be thoughtful about what that means for educating all those kids.” 

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

What would the bill do?

Dunnavant’s original legislation was a one-line bill directing local school divisions to provide in-person instruction if any family requested it. VanValkenburg’s substitute bill would have allowed local boards to create their own definition of face-to-face instruction.

The compromise legislation that passed on Monday is more nuanced than the original but also addresses some of the concerns Dunnavant raised with the Democrats’ proposal. It would define in-person instruction specifically as interactions between teachers and students “in person and in real time” — a response to some local divisions that have hired classroom monitors to observe students as they complete online lessons. 

“We all know what in-person really is, and it’s not proctors in classrooms with teachers at home and kids who are doing virtual education while sitting in a classroom,” Dunnavant said. 

State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The bill also allows schools to continue providing remote learning for families who request it. But it tasks VDOE with creating benchmarks for success in virtual instruction, and guidance for “transitioning students back to in-person instruction” if they’re not meeting those standards.

“We obviously want to work with our families to provide them with what they want,” said Keith Perrigan, president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, who worked with lawmakers on the latest version of the bill.

“But we don’t want to do is write a blank check and for families to be disengaged or for students to not be thriving in that virtual environment,” he added. Early data suggests that more students are struggling academically during the pandemic, with greater reports of failing grades and absenteeism from local school districts. 

The compromise bill gives schools the freedom to temporarily close buildings if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19, but “only for as long as it is necessary” to address the problem. It instructs schools to follow disease mitigation measures from the CDC to the “maximum extent practicable,” and it allows teachers to work remotely if they need to isolate or quarantine — or if they have a disability waiver.

Importantly, the legislation does not have an emergency clause attached, meaning it won’t go into effect until July 1. Dunnavant urged House lawmakers to reattach the clause during Monday’s committee meeting, and two Republican members made an unsuccessful motion to do so. But VanValkenburg suggested it could kill support for the bill in the House.

“What we are seeing right now is, we are seeing school systems who are going back, who are figuring it out,” he said during the meeting. “I think an appropriate thing to do, as a legislature, is to give them time to adapt to this and to not force it down their throats.”

The bill does have a sunset clause, meaning that it will expire by Aug. 1, 2022.

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

Do schools and teachers support the bill?

VanValkenburg’s substitute bill, and the compromise legislation, has earned support from the Virginia Education Association — a prominent union representing more than 40,000 teachers and other school staff. President James Fedderman said the proposal represented “a plan developed by educators and parents working together.”

But other educators and associations have opposed the bill, including the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. Some of the strongest opposition has come from districts that fought against the governor’s decision to shut down school buildings last March and reopened for full in-person instruction last fall.

“We were willing to go to court to sue for the right to open our schools,” David Woodard, a school board member for Tazewell County Public Schools, said during the committee meeting. “But my problem with the legislation is it removes local control. The Constitution of Virginia gives control of local schools to local school boards because one-size-fits-all rules don’t necessarily work all the time.”

The same concerns were raised by administrators in other districts that have strongly advocated for in-person learning — as well as those that have operated remotely for most of the pandemic. 

Janet Turner-Giles, the president of VSBA and a school board member in Nelson County, said the largely rural district decided to remain closed after realizing it didn’t have enough bus drivers and substitute teachers to step in if staff had to quarantine.

“We just recently decided to move to hybrid learning now that over 80 percent of our teachers have been vaccinated,” she said. Other opponents pointed out that only two divisions in Virginia are operating remotely with no plans to gradually phase more students back into buildings.

“School boards are already doing this,” said Stacy Haney, VSBA’s chief lobbyist. “We’re already planning to open, we are opening, and we’re doing it based on the data in our local communities.”

Another concern has been cost. Walter Clemons, the superintendent of Gloucester County Public Schools, said he was particularly concerned by the language in the bill that encourages school districts to provide remote learning options even while buildings are reopened. Across the state, there’s been large numbers of families opting to stay virtual — from 35 percent in Tazewell to 63 percent of families who responded to a survey in Richmond.

According to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based nonprofit that focuses particularly on low- and moderate-income Virginians, there’s not currently strong data on how the costs of hybrid learning compare to full in-person or remote instruction. But there have been numerous reports on teachers working extended hours to juggle both face-to-face students and their virtual classes.

Clemons said paying for additional staff hours is one of his biggest concerns if the bill moves forward. And while VanValkenburg emphasized schools would be receiving additional resources in the state budget and through federal aid — including the roughly $850 million distributed to Virginia schools in the most recent stimulus package — it’s still unclear how much long-term mitigation measures will actually cost.

“It’s a big, complicated answer,” said Chad Stewart, TCI’s manager of education policy and development. Current estimates range from roughly $598 million for all Virginia schools, based on additional budget requests from Prince William County, to more than $2.9 billion — based on a model from the American Federation of Teachers that also calls on schools to increase their nursing and mental health support staff.

“It’s not an easy question to answer,” Stewart said. “But it’s one that’s going to be very top of mind for the next several months.”