Today the Virginia General Assembly meets after 159 days of declared state of emergency to address issues about the budget, Covid and public safety. Until a few hours ago, we knew very little about the bills coming before us except for what has been made public in the media and press releases. One thing has been made clear and that is the Democrats see this as a political referendum. Republicans see this as a practical referendum.
Practically, we need to solve problems because many have been created during the administration's response to Covid. Starting down a path towards a solution sooner would’ve made a big difference in the legislature being able to perform their role of developing policy and a response.
Separation of Powers:
Protecting the concept of representative government is one of our top priorities. You’re going to see lots of legislation that will clarify the intent of Virginia code related to emergency orders. Particularly that they cannot be instituted and continued in perpetuity without involving the legislature. Current proposals create a limit of 30 days before the Governor is required to receive legislative approval. We understand the Governor needs to be able to issue emergency orders, but one person shouldn’t have the power to make unilateral decisions for an unlimited amount of time.
Data has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve experienced during the pandemic. There has been such a lack of diligence of sharing with the public what data points are valuable and salient to decision making. I’m carrying legislation to require the Virginia Department of Health to define more clearly community cases versus communal living cases like nursing homes and jails. I’m also asking that they include age demographics of new cases so we can understand clearly who’s impacted by the virus in new cases. Lastly, it directs the Commissioner to publish clear benchmarks so we have an indication that the virus is in check and it’s safe with precautions to pursue school or other community activities.
We all know testing has been a big issue. Virginia has now entered into a compact to obtain rapid tests that can give results in minutes. These tests need to be deployed to the front lines where immediate awareness of a positive individual could curtail disease spread. This legislation would ensure that teachers, healthcare providers, first responders, and law enforcement are the first to get the rapid test so decisions can be made immediately to protect the community.
The epic health issue that we have as a result of the pandemic is children’s health and that risk is not from the virus. School is more than curriculum; it can’t be fully translated to online education. Families are in crisis as they balance imperatives of safety and education and the ability to put food on the table.
Virginia’s students have serious financial challenges. 40% of our children qualify for free and reduced lunch. A third of our children are covered under Medicaid. According to SCHEV, 200,000 K-12 students do not have broadband in the home. 173,000 do not have a laptop or computer.
Virtual education is an imperative to protect those who have a higher risk of becoming ill from the virus, but we are depriving families of resources and support programs offered in our schools.
It should be our number one budget priority to restore funding for schools and at risk populations. We must ensure schools have the money they need to redesign their classrooms to be safe for children meaning PPE, cleaning supplies and equipment, and teaching supplies as we adapt to providing school in a new way.
Some other items coming forth this week will be liability protection for schools and 14 days paid leave for teachers in case they need to quarantine or care for a loved one. Our teachers need to know we have their backs. Finally, I’ll be carrying legislation to ensure students are not penalized for Covid related absences.
We’ve heard time and time again qualms from parents who struggled with educating their children in a virtual setting. The quality of the education our students were being provided was brought into question on numerous occasions. Consistency lacked and we know consistency = quality in education.
My legislation will instruct the Department of Education to develop and implement a diagnostic student assessment to gauge student proficiency. It will determine a student’s progress as a growth measure.
Community college classes are also being offered in a virtual setting this fall. If our high school students have to learn online there’s no reason they can’t get college credit that will abbreviate their path to a degree and a great job. The same applies for those seeking nationally recognized licensures and certifications. I’ll carry legislation to make it easier for high school students to directly connect with community colleges so they can earn credits that help them achieve their ultimate goals.
Parents are desperately seeking safe places for child care so they can go to work. I’m proposing legislation that will return cash to parents who have to cover the costs of expensive child care. This will be done through a refundable dependent care expense refund for the tax year 2020. I want to make that tax credit cash in hand for parents.
Telemedicine has been a wonderful complement to health care during the pandemic by addressing challenges to access. I talk to patients each day who complain about how hard it is to get into a medical practice office now, especially for mental health care.
I want to make sure telemedicine can continue to reach right into peoples homes or work, as long as it can be done privately and safely. Believe it or not before COVID this wasn’t allowed. There are other good telemedicine innovations that stemmed from this pandemic and we need to keep them to make getting healthcare easier and more patient centered. This is vital for mental health services which Virginians desperately need access to at this time. It’s essential that we make sure patients are not neglected because they’re trying to stay safe and home.
Law Enforcement Reform:
You’ll see legislation that will ensure police officers have crisis intervention training so that they can de-escalate situations instead of having them deteriorate to force. There will be legislation for expungement and other evidence proven strategies to help reform criminal justice, improve law enforcement accountability and public safety.
There is clear evidence that Virginia can reduce the risk of police violence and officer involved shootings by reversing the decision to allow for collective bargaining. Data resoundingly shows that police departments with collective bargaining experience higher rates of violence and shootings. A proposal to reverse the Democrat backed plan will be on the table. It is imperative that anyone who genuinely wants to reduce police violence and improve outcomes to support this legislation.