- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Virginia lawmakers are wrestling over requiring school districts to provide in-person instruction by the summer as political pressure mounts for students to return to classrooms.

This week, the House of Delegates’ Education Committee approved a bipartisan bill that would require full-time, in-person classes for kindergarten through 12th grade across the state.

It also would require that schools COVID-19 safety standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have provided guidelines for reopening. It would not provide additional funding for schools to meet the CDC’s standards, but lawmakers are planning to allocate millions to get more resources to educators.

In addition, the legislation would require that schools stay open regardless of the nearby community spread of the coronavirus, which has been a metric used in some districts to gauge how quickly they should allow students to return. The Virginia Department of Health’s guidance, however, calls for schools to close if there is an outbreak on campus.

The bill would go into effect in July, when the school year is largely wrapped up, but politicians on both sides of the aisle are calling for in-person summer school options to address the learning losses amid the pandemic.

The House legislation is an updated version of a bill introduced by state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, Henrico Republican, that passed in the Senate this month. The earlier version was a one-line bill that would have required all school districts make in-person and virtual options available to families.

Ms. Dunnavant, a physician by profession, worked with Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, Henrico Democrat and a public school teacher, to compromise on the latest version that they introduced Monday at a hearing.

“This is a safe way for us to do the most important thing,” Ms. Dunnavant said at the hearing.

Throughout the past year, Virginia has used a patchwork approach to teaching in the pandemic, with schools across the state offering a variety of in-person, virtual and hybrid options.

Of Virginia’s 132 school districts, 20 are offering at least four days of in-person instruction for all students, 50 have that option available to at least some students, and 30 have all their students on a hybrid model that doesn’t reach the four-day threshold.

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a directive that all schools should have in-person options available by March 15.

With the legislative session scheduled to end on March 1, both chambers still need to pass the bill before it can get to Mr. Northam’s desk for his signature.

The bill advanced out of a House committee over the objection of representatives for school boards and superintendents, who argued that decisions about whether in-person instruction is safe are best made at the local level.

The latest version of the bill “mandates full-time, in-person instruction for all students without regard to whether we can meet the CDC guidelines,” said Stacy Haney, a lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association.

Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a March 1 deadline for hybrid in-person instruction options to be made available across the state. A total of 22 of the state’s 24 school districts submitted reopening plans as of about two weeks ago, according to Mr. Hogan.

“I will do everything I possibly can do within the law to push to get all of Maryland’s children back into the classroom,” he said at his press conference last month.

In the $1.5 billion supplemental budget proposal he delivered to Maryland’s General Assembly last week, Mr. Hogan set aside $150 million for the fund that would extend to school operations, child care programs, local health departments and housing programs. He also allocated more than $930 million specifically for school reopenings.

Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly voted to override a veto from Mr. Hogan this month and sustain their 10-year $3.8 billion “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” bill that aims to reform the public school system by changing the funding formulas.

Delegate Lauren Arikan, a Republican representing part of Harford and Baltimore counties, introduced a bill last week that would give parents the option to reallocate public school funds to an alternative option if their particular district does not have in-person options available by the fall.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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