Virginia’s General Assembly moves closer to mandating in-person instruction by this summer

Virginia’s General Assembly moves closer to mandating in-person instruction by this summer
William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Source: 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 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.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.