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Op Ed: It's Time for Virginia to Open It's Schools

As we mark one year of the coronavirus global pandemic in Virginia, we also mark 365 days of school closures. On March 16, 2020, Virginia schools were forced to close their doors to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Those closures were initially supposed to last two weeks; they then turned into a month, and then the rest of the spring semester.

Summer came, and, as school divisions worked through how to get children back into the classroom, they were quickly met with resistance by one vocal and politically powerful group: the teachers union. As many districts worked to reopen within the murky and fluid guidelines put out by the Northam administration — spacing desks six feet apart, using every other row of buses, implementing deep cleaning — they were told by union leaders not to reopen. Like dominoes, districts that were considering at least a hybrid schedule to follow state guidelines quickly shifted back to complete virtual learning. AD Over the past 365 days, Virginia’s state leaders, school districts, department of education and teachers unions have not been putting children first. The science and data show that our children need to be in school and can safely be in school. Last summer, informed by the data we were already seeing and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics stating that schools should be open, a group of Republicans announced a comprehensive set of measures to get our schools reopened in the fall with funding to do so safely. It was met with a uniform “no” by our colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And one year into school closures, it is well beyond time that we start prioritizing Virginia’s children. That’s why for the 2021 General Assembly Session, I had one priority: getting Virginia’s schools reopened. I introduced S.B. 1303, legislation with one sentence: that Virginia’s schools must reopen fully for in-person learning. AD That legislation passed the Senate with bipartisan support and moved over to the House of Delegates. But the teachers union got its hands on it and demanded a substitute that made it too easy to keep all students learning virtually, didn’t put teachers in front of the classroom and had no requirement for five days a week of school. That was not acceptable. So, I pushed back and insisted on a full return to in-person learning. What ultimately passed is legislation that will go into effect July 1 that requires all schools to be open for in-person learning, five days a week, with a teacher in front of the classroom. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) set a goal of all schools reopened by March 15, one year after the mandatory school closures. President Biden has set a goal of all schools reopened by his first 100 days in office — May 1. AD Realistically, as it currently stands, this bill impacts schooling this fall. I imagine most parents would be shocked to realize we even needed to legislate schools reopening for the 2021-2022 school year. Though we tried to get an emergency clause put on the substitute legislation that would make it go into effect sooner, we could not drum up the political willpower in the House of Delegates to make that happen. I sincerely wish the teachers union would follow the science, but its political power forced a July 1 compromise. In a Democratic-controlled legislature, this was the very best that could be done. That is a sad commentary on the state of our education system in Virginia: that unions would work against children in such a forceful manner. It is now incumbent on our governor to amend this legislation with an emergency clause that will help him and our president reach their goal of reopening schools this spring. AD Virginia lags well behind the nation in getting our children back learning five days a week in the classroom. Nationally, 46.9 percent of K-12 students are attending traditional in person school every day, according to Burbio. In Virginia, just 17 percent of students are learning in person, according to the Virginia Dogwood Institute.

Now, report after report is showing the severe mental health and learning loss issues plaguing Virginia’s children, particularly low-income and minority students. Experts say it will take three years for our youngest learners to make up the one year of school they have lost. That is devastating. We must act now to reduce the harm. We have seen in Virginia’s private schools and states whose schools are fully reopened with safety measures in place that students can return to the classroom five days a week while keeping teachers and staff safe. As more and more teachers get vaccinated, there is absolutely no reason to keep delaying a return to learning. AD In keeping schools closed for an entire year, we have left behind Virginia’s children. This has gone on for far too long. We must start putting our children first.

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