Senator Siobhan Dunnavant’s (R-Henrico) SB 1303 requiring schools to provide both in-person and virtual learning options is still moving through the House of Delegates, but slowly. Dunnavant’s bill earned bipartisan support in the Senate, thanks in part to support from Senators Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond.) But a House Education subcommittee initially introduced several amendments to the bill that would effectively leave the status quo intact, prompting opposition from House Republicans.
Dunnavant told The Virginia Star that she was working with House legislators and hoped to have a good compromise ready next week. The House Education Committee met on Wednesday and was scheduled to consider the amended bill, but instead voted to temporarily pass by the bill.
“Senator Dunnavant’s bill is a bill that is important to all of us and we want to make sure that we get it right, so it will be a bill that both parties can be confident in,” Committee Chair Delegate Roslyn Tyler (D-Sussex) said on Wednesday. “That’s why we’re going to pass by the bill today, not to hurt the bill but to get it into the right perspective.”
The version as passed by the Senate states, “That each local school division in the Commonwealth shall make [ virtual and ] in-person learning available to all students by choice of the student’s parent or guardian.”
It would have gone into effect on July 1. House amendments to the bill include clarifications that bill applies to the 2021-2022 school year; require school districts to provide COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers before the school year begins; and allow school districts to determine their own definitions of in-person learning and define the parameters. Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), who is a teacher, has taken the lead on drafting the House amendments, in conversation with Dunnavant.
Dunnavant said that the bill as initially amended didn’t go far enough, and neither did Governor Ralph Northam’s recent call for schools to provide some kind of in-person learning option by March 15. She said that some schools’ versions of in-person options are kids in classrooms in front of laptops with remote teaching. She’s calling for a mandated five-days-a-week fully in-person option.
Dunnavant said she’s been working with VanValkenburg, whose district overlaps with hers, to come up with a better bill.
“His initial bill said that every school district could define what in-person is, and I said no, we need to have a universal definition. There is one that exists,” Dunnavant said. “It’s been a very amicable conversation.”
She said the bipartisan conversation around the bill shows the power of the legislative process.
“While they introduced no bill, and prior to this session this has been a party-line kind of provision, I now see a great deal of genuine recognition of the science and that we’re right that the schools have to open. And now they’re willing to talk,” Dunnavant said.
“And that’s how legislation begets conversation, right?” Dunnavant said, “You have to put a stake in the ground, you have to gather people around you to hold that ground, and then when you do, it’s easier to have conversation where before there was absolutely no chance to talk about it.”
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