RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In a bipartisan vote, the Virginia Senate approved legislation Tuesday requiring every local school division to offer all students a choice of in-person or virtual learning. While it will now advance to the House, the bill won’t take effect until July under its current state.
Several senators expressed their support for the measure from state Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico), with state Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) calling it “the most important bill” the Senate will vote on during the 2021 legislative session. A handful of Democratic senators joined all of the Republicans in the chamber to vote in favor of the bill.
“We are losing a generation of children,” state Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax), the bill’s co-patron, told senators in a floor speech.
The bill mandates that local school districts make both options, virtual and in-person, available to students and allow parents and guardians to decide. An emergency clause in the measure was withdrawn, a decision that disappointed multiple lawmakers but drove one Democrat to vote in support of the measure.
Critics of the bill argued that while students are less likely to be impacted by COVID-19, there are other people in school buildings who may be at high-risk of the virus. Others pointed to the guidance on school reopening from the Virginia Department of Education and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and plans already in place by local districts.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), a gubernatorial contender, told senators that concerns over the mental health and well-being of Virginia’s students is vital but that “they aren’t the only ones in the building.” She noted that educators and school staff members are typically older and are in the high-risk category for COVID-19, adding the toll on children won’t disappear once schools reopen.
“We better not fool ourselves…that the impacts went away,” McClellan said Tuesday, “because they are going to be with us for a long time.”
The bill will now head to the House of Delegates, where a similar bill has yet to advance to the full chamber and its fate remain unclear.