Republican legislators call on Governor Northam to prioritize five days of in-school learning

Republican legislators call on Governor Northam to prioritize five days of in-school learning
Classroom with desks six feet apart to abide by the social distancing guidelines. (Source: KTRE)

RICHMOND, Va., (WDBJ) - A group of Republican legislators in Virginia is calling on Governor Ralph Northam to prioritize in-school learning five days a week for all students. Legislators laid out policy and budget priorities during a press conference, meant to ensure schools can safely reopen. These priorities include:

  • Additional paid leave for teachers and staff for COVID-19 related issues.
  • Immunity for school districts from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
  • Funding for teacher pay raises.
  • Additional funding for at-risk schools.
  • Increased funding for Virtual Virginia.
  • Expanded health/nursing services.
  • Increased funding to help schools reopen.

The legislators called on Governor Northam to clearly give school districts a roadmap to reopening five days a week for in-school learning on the first day of school. They say updated guidelines issued this week by Virginia’s state health commissioner and superintendent of public instruction still leave too much confusion about what is expected of school districts from an instruction standpoint, and what phase Virginia will be in on the first day of school. It also remains unclear whether the guidelines are recommendations or requirements for school districts.

In June, the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) issued its guidance for schools, stating, “The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school….No child or adolescents should be excluded from school unless required in order to adhere to local public health mandates or because of unique medical needs.”

The legislators say Virginia’s COVID-19 cases among 0-19-year-olds continue to track what nationwide the Center for Disease Control and researchers are seeing – that children are much less likely to contract and spread the disease than adults.

Of the 7,156 confirmed cases in Virginia among 0-19 year olds, which represent 10% of the total cases in Virginia, only 116 hospitalizations have occurred with zero deaths as of Wednesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“As an OB-GYN, I have spent the last four months counseling hundreds of women on how to safely raise their newborn babies during this pandemic,” Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN in Henrico, said. “As a mother, I have seen the importance of school on a child’s well being and future. And as a working mother, I know first-hand the need for a safe, consistent place for children to go during the day and after school. The governor’s lack of a plan for our children and families is leaving all Virginians behind, and putting the careers, livelihoods, and futures of far too many people at risk.”

They also called on legislation giving school districts immunity from lawsuits over COVID-19 issues. They say many districts are unsure of how to implement the governor’s guidelines and how to navigate potential liabilities of bringing children back to school.

“As a working mom, I sympathize with the concerns of contracting COVID-19 and the risk of exposure at school,” Senator Jill Vogel, a lawyer in Northern Virginia, said. “Too many school districts are being forced to make decisions because of a fear of lawsuits rather than what’s best for children. Virginia must have policies that protects our teachers, protects our students, and protects our school districts. By implementing immunity policy for school districts, you can allow school districts to focus on how to safely reopen their doors five days a week rather than making decisions around potential legal actions.”

In addition, the legislators advocated for additional paid leave for teachers and staff that would allow them to take time off if they contract COVID-19 or need to care for a family member who has it.

Certain budget priorities would ensure schools have the ability to reopen. These include pay raises for teachers, funding for at-risk students and schools, funding for additional school counselors to help students address learning losses that have occurred and may occur in the future due to the pandemic, increased funding for Virtual Virginia so every student has access to online learning, expanded health and nursing services, and funding to help schools open.

Virtual Virginia was previously available to 6,000 high school students. Soon it will be accessible for all K-12 students.

“I want to see our students and staff go back safely with reasonable precautions in place,” Senator Jen Kiggans, a nurse practitioner in Virginia Beach, said. “I support school choice and continue to advocate for a schooling model that works best for our students, staff, and families. We shouldn’t be forcing parents to choose between their jobs and their children, and instead need policy solutions to help schools reopen safely. Our school districts need leadership from our governor, and our schools need the resources to be innovative during this time.”

“Right now, we are facing a public health crisis we know how to track, how to contain, and how to live with,” Delegate Carrie Coyner, a former member of the Chesterfield County School Board, said. “Not fully opening schools creates multiple health crises with long lasting, detrimental impacts on our children and our parents. We can’t measure the increased mental health issues, lack of access to food, widening of educational gaps between low-income and minority students and students with disabilities, increases in child abuse and neglect and the lack of reporting provided by schools, greater family economic instability due to balancing work and children at home, and the gap in childcare availability and affordability.”

Legislators say opening schools on a hybrid schedule would actually increase children’s exposure to more people. By keeping them in groups with the same children five days a week, legislators believe exposure would be reduced. If a child is in school two days a week with one group of children and in childcare the other three days a week they are exposed to at least two groups who may infect them. Additionally, many parents are already having trouble finding or affording additional childcare, further straining an already difficult time in many households.

“Failure to reopen schools this fall could have a lifelong impact on a child’s trajectory,” said Coyner.

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