The Virginia state Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would require schools to offer in-person instruction beginning next fall.

Senate Bill 1303, sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, passed on a vote of 26-13. Eight Democrats joined 18 Republicans to support the bill, with 13 Democrats in opposition.

Originally, the bill had an emergency clause, meaning that if the House and the Senate passed it with the backing of two-thirds of each chamber, it would immediately become law upon Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature. Now, if the House of Delegates passes the bill, it would become law on July 1, along with most other approved legislation.

In the Senate on Tuesday, Dunnavant said lawmakers have a moral obligation to look out for all of the state’s schoolchildren.

“Three Virginias are evolving in front of our eyes for our children,” Dunnavant said. “We have people who can afford to pay for private education. We have parents who can afford to advocate for their children at school boards.

“And then we have the families on the cusp of everything. We know that they are suffering more than anybody else,” she said.

Dunnavant said the legislature must act in order to send guidance to Virginia’s school systems.

“We need to send clear direction for the school boards … to turn their attention from the argument of ‘Do we open?’ to ‘How do we open?’ ”

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Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who supported the measure, told senators that the bill, which now moves to the House, might not pass that chamber in its present form but “it clearly sends a message” and he hopes school boards will listen.

As the General Assembly session began, Dunnavant; Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City; and Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, said at a news conference that schools hoping to receive state dollars next year should be required to open for in-person learning in the fall.

Learning loss for early learners due to time away from school is substantial. The number of kindergartners and first-graders who need early reading intervention shot up 10% year over year, according to Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening data, a tool used by all Virginia school systems except for Fairfax County. Almost half of all English Language Learners in kindergarten and first grade were at high risk for reading failure in fall 2020, up by 12.4% for both grade levels.

Surovell said on the Senate floor Tuesday that in the eastern Fairfax County district he represents, 1 in 4 residents are born in another country. He said many students in his district are trying to navigate virtual schooling while supervised by relatives who might face language barriers.

Other residents he represents face new and mounting child care costs because both parents have to work and they need someone to supervise their child who is in virtual school.

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“This process is getting old and it’s getting old really fast for everybody,” Surovell said.

Surovell said he recently sent out a survey to constituents and 76% of respondents said their kids should go back to school in person once all school personnel are vaccinated.

“I can tell you that if our school boards don’t give people the option to send their kids back in person after everybody’s been vaccinated, there’s going to be [people with] torches and pitchforks out there saying ‘Open the damn door,’ ” Surovell said.

Schools in Virginia have been largely shuttered since March 13. On that day, schools across the country closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 23, Gov. Ralph Northam shuttered school for the remainder of the year to mitigate spread. The Virginia Department of Health, alongside the Virginia Department of Education, has since released COVID-19 guidance that nudges schools toward opening for in-person instruction.

A majority of school divisions in Virginia are open for some sort of in-person instruction, and many expect to reopen next school year. Vaccinations for teachers are underway in the state. As of Jan. 26, just 42 out of Virginia’s 132 school divisions were fully virtual. In the Richmond area, Richmond Public Schools is the only school district that has voted to remain virtual for the entire 2020-2021 school year.

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Chesterfield County Public Schools parent Elisabeth Read said she was elated to see the bill pass the Senate after witnessing the toll virtual school has taken on her kids. She said she ended up pulling her son out of public school because he was failing.

“I’ve spoken with the board over and over about my frustrations with virtual school because he’s never gotten less than a B in his life and he’s all honors,” she said in an interview. “Taking all honors online virtually was just a disaster for him and his personality.”

Data largely shows that children do not spread COVID-19 at the same rates as adults, and that schools don’t drive community spread.

There have been some reports of COVID-19 deaths associated with school districts around the country. In Richmond, a bus driver who delivered food died in October from COVID-19 complications.

“I want them back in school,” McClellan said of her own kids. “But the kids aren’t the only ones in the building that we have to worry about. And the teachers aren’t the only ones in the building we have to worry about.”

(804) 649-6948

Staff writers Andrew Cain and Mel Leonor contributed to this report.

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By Lisa Wu

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