Virginia lawmakers disagree over who controls school safety measures

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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam hinted at a press conference Thursday that school divisions that do not follow federal guidelines related to COVID-19 mitigation strategies will violate state law.

Now lawmakers disagree on a state law that requires all schools to offer in-person instruction.

SB 1303, the law in question, was originally introduced by Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) as a one-sentence bill, requiring a return to in-person education.

Democrats added language to the bill requiring schools to follow CDC mitigation strategies “to the extent possible.” It was passed earlier this year with a strong bipartisan vote.

Now the addition to the bill is fueling conflict, given the latest guidance from the CDC, which urges masks for everyone in K-12 schools across the country, regardless of immunization status.

“[The law] said schools would follow CDC guidelines, ”Northam said Thursday. “I don’t know if it can be any simpler than that.”

He also said that school divisions that choose not to follow federal guidelines should “have a frank discussion with their legal counsel.”

House Democrats amended the law to come into effect on July 1 and also added language on federal health guidelines.

Henrico Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg

“The law says you follow CDC guidelines,” said Henrico Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg. “We want the schools to be open, we want the children to go to school, they have to be in school – but we also have to make sure that there is the opportunity to adapt as the virus can or not adapt. ”

The language of the CDC’s recommendations was not a controversial part of the law, VanValkenburg said.

Dunnavant – who introduced the bill that did not include language regarding CDC guidelines – said that Northam misinterprets the law.

If the governor thinks we should have a mask warrant, then go ahead and have the courage to call him instead of suggesting that maybe this is the bill he’s twisting. It’s such a weird way of doing it, ”Dunnavant told the Citizen. “It doesn’t give any clear direction. He just says, ‘God, maybe that’s what the law means.’ Which is not the case.

Dunnavant focused on the word “practical” in his explanation of how Northam misinterprets the law. SB1303 requires schools to follow CDC guidelines “As much as possible. “

“The only reason that word was added was to allow flexibility,” Dunnavant said. “Practicable” means that you welcome children with anxiety disorders who cannot wear a mask. “Doable” means making sure your number one goal is getting the kids back to school and determining the rest in the best interests of the kids with the experts in the field, namely parents and teachers. ”

Henrico Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant

July 21, recommended condition – but did not require – that all schools in Virginia enforce mask mandates for unvaccinated students and staff in the fall. Guidelines issued by the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Health intentionally leave power in the hands of each school system, state officials said.

At least one school division has changed its masking policy because of Northam’s comments. The Augusta County School Board canceled its mask policy on Thursday, according to The leader of the news.

The Henrico County School Board will meet on Thursday and discuss the masking plans during its working session.

July 27 – the same day the CDC’s new guidelines were released – the Henrico County Public Schools Division announced to staff and families that masks will be optional for the 2021-2022 school year.

“While we encourage mask wear for those who are not fully immunized, we respect that mask wearing is currently an individual’s choice,” the email from HCPS said.

HCPS spokesperson Andy Jenks told the Citizen Thursday that the school division intends to follow the law, but did not say whether the masking policy would change or not. The update that HCPS sent out last week was released just ahead of the release of the CDC’s latest guidance, as well as ahead of the increase in community transmission last week, Jenks said. School officials were making arrangements to present updated recommendations to the Henrico School Board ahead of the Northam press conference.

There will be no HCPS announcement regarding mask policy decisions until the board has discussed the matter on Thursday, according to Jenks.

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Anna Bryson is the educational reporter for Henrico Citizen and a member of the Report for America corps. Make a tax deductible donation to support his work, and RFA will match him dollar for dollar.


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