Virginia Republicans are asking Gov. Ralph Northam to withdraw his guidelines for schools to follow regarding reopening this fall and letting them prioritize getting kids into school five days a week.
Virginia’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is going better than some states and, as a result, some state leaders are arguing it’s time for some things to go back to normal. Schools were shut down prematurely to guard against the sweeping COVID-19 pandemic but with months of data and experience under leaders’ belts, Republicans are arguing keeping kids out of school will be worse than letting them return in the fall.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, referred to guidelines from the American Association of Pediatrics that note school boards should be prioritizing kids getting into classrooms five days a week.
COVID-19 has had a minimal effect on Virginia’s younger population with 10.6% of the state’s 67,375 cases occurring in those aged 0-19. Hospitalizations among that same group account for 1.7% of the state’s 6,577 hospitalizations.
Dunnavant also pointed to the child care facilities that have remained in operation during the pandemic that has offered working families a chance to keep working without leaving their children home alone. Of those facilities, Dunnavant said, there has been just one outbreak and no hospitalizations.
“We have some data on how to do this safely,” Dunnavant said. “Our state needs to start making decisions that are in the best interests of Virginia’s children and their future. That’s why we’re advocating for a roadmap from Gov. Northam that prioritizes schools reopening doors five days a week.”
To make reopening possible, Republicans are offering a suite of resources for schools, including increasing teacher pay, funding more nurses to work in schools, and offering immunity protections so schools are not worrying about COVID-19-related lawsuits as a result of opening back up.
Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said schools have to be creative and flexible. Without support from politicians, school boards will not have the leeway to come up with creative solutions to the complex problems COVID-19 is presenting, Cox said.
While Republicans are pushing for Northam to rescind his guidelines — leaving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Association of Pediatrics guidelines in place to control individual school board decisions — they said they are not looking to remove the option of online learning.
Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, said she has always been an advocate of school choice, and that leaving online learning as an option for children or teachers who may not be healthy enough to reenter school is important. However, the primary goal of schools, wherever possible, should be to emphasize returning students to classrooms five days a week, she said.
Northam revised his guidelines for schools earlier this week and on Wednesday Vice President Mike Pence announced the CDC is working on revising theirs as well.
Northam’s guidelines do not mention how often students should be in classrooms, though Phase Three recommendations begin with offering that “in-person instruction may be offered for all students, however physical distancing measures should be implemented.”
Throughout Northam’s guidelines, there are references and links to standing CDC and American Association of Pediatrics guidance — a fact that Republicans say renders the guidelines moot.
Dunnavant said Virginia’s guidelines conflict with the American Association of Pediatrics because it does not include a recommendation that schools should try to get students back into classrooms five days a week. She and other Republicans said during the conference they could go line-by-line with the different guidelines but left their specific critiques to a lack of emphasis on prioritizing five-day-a-week education as a goal.
The conflict between different sets of guidelines may also be creating a problem from risk management and legal perspective, Del Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, said.
Coyner, a former school board member, said that risk management offices are going to be instructing school boards to follow the state’s guidelines if they are in place. If a directive to be in school five days a week isn’t there, school board members are going to shy away from pushing for it, she said.
If Northam’s guidelines are pulled back, then school boards will be looking at two sets of guidelines rather than three and their concerns will be mitigated that they aren’t adhering to each of them, she said.
Although children have shown great resilience to COVID-19 in Virginia, there are still concerns about teachers who are not ready to go back.
In Northam’s letter to school leaders on Monday updating them about the changes to the guidelines, he noted that the science on how COVID-19 spreads from children to adults is still murky.
Some teachers reside in the high-risk range of the population for contracting and suffering from COVID-19 or may have family members at home who are high-risk.
Cox, a former teacher, said those teachers who are nervous about returning should not be discounted but that there is another set of teachers he has heard from that are advocating returning to the classroom.
Leaving space for teachers and students who are ill or don’t feel safe returning to brick-and-mortar schools is why Republicans said they aren’t taking virtual education off the table, but they don’t want it to be the default answer come fall.
Legislators will bring up their proposal to emphasize in-person learning for a full week during the expected special session in August.