Associated Press (AP) — The debate over whether schools should reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic with in-person learning offered five days a week has become a political flash point in Virginia.
The same day that President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal aid to state and local schools that don’t bring their students back in the fall, Virginia Republicans on Wednesday blasted Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam for not doing enough to ensure in-class instruction is available during the entire work week.
“Five days is not only a viable option, it’s a really necessary option and there needs to be some leadership here,” Del. Kirk Cox, a retired high school teacher, said at a virtual news conference.
Republicans said Northam needs to scrap the state guidelines his administration has provided to school districts and instead come up with a “roadmap” for how schools can offer five-day a week instruction with virtual learning that’s optional, not mandatory. GOP lawmakers said there’s clear evidence, including from childcare centers that have operated throughout the pandemic, that it’s possible to have in-person five days without putting students and teachers at undue risk.
Northam’s guidelines allow for in-person instruction but also call for social distancing measures that school districts have said may require splitting up normal classroom sizes and offering a mix of in-person and virtual learning. The governor’s office also has made clear that local school districts have the final say in how school reopen and the guidelines are not mandates.
On Wednesday, his spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, criticized Republicans for “playing politics” with school openings.
“While Governor Northam wants nothing more than to have children back in school this fall, recent surges in other states make it clear we need to proceed cautiously,” she said.
Other proposals Republicans want passed during a special legislative session next month include boosting teacher pay and paid leave, as well as providing immunity to school districts from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
Whether schools and colleges should open this fall and how has been a topic of growing debate as the coronavirus continues to surge in parts of the United States. Virginia has seen largely positive trends related to the virus but many of its schools are considering bringing students back for only a few days a week.
That includes Bland County, a rural county with about 700 students where the state has reported only two positive cases of the virus.
“We’re following the CDC guidelines we feel like that’s what we need follow at this time,” said Superintendent Scott Meade.
Virginia’s largest school district, Fairfax County, has announced plans to plans to have families decide between fully remote instruction or two days a week at school.
That decision sparked the ire of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who slammed the county’s plans on a private conference call with governors Tuesday.
“A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” DeVos said, according to audio of the call obtained by The Associated Press.