Virginia lawmakers looking at bills to help schools navigate COVID-19, budget woes could prevent passing

Local Coronavirus Coverage

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- On day two of Virginia’s special session, senators took on bills to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on schools. Many of the proposals have bipartisan support but budget woes could prevent some from passing.

The Senate Committee on Education and Health kicked off their meeting at the Science Museum of Virginia Wednesday morning by acting on a bill that would require school boards to employ at least one full time nurse in every building.

“It could be the difference between containment and a complete shut down,” said Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), who introduced the bill.

Another possible mandate from Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) says schools have to provide technological resources and internet connection for virtual learning at no cost to families.

Both of these bills were referred to the Senate Finance Committee, where they face an uphill battle as lawmakers revise a budget with big revenue shortfalls from coronavirus closures.

“It’s called a double standard right here. The Democrats are saying we’re going to force you to educate your kids one hundred percent online but we’re not going to give you the resources to do it,” Chase said.

A proposal that would require up to 14 days of paid sick leave for teachers in a quarantine situation is also on its way to the Senate Finance Committee. Teachers could use it if they were exposed to or test positive for COVID-19, as well as to care for a sick family member.

“We want teachers to know that while they’re in a communal setting with an increased risk of infection that we are going to back them up,” said bill patron Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico). “I think it’s important that state step forward and say that we’re willing to contribute to this process, localities are already scrambling.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat from Fairfax, said he supports these proposals in theory but they’re too expensive.

“I think it’s unrealistic. I mean the governor told us yesterday we’re in a $2.7 billion dollar deficit. In my opinion, that’s optimistic,” said Petersen. “I’m not going to vote for new spending unless I’m prepared to vote for new taxes and I’m not doing that either.”

Petersen is also backing a proposal penned by Sen. Steve Newman (R- Lynchburg) that would ban the governor from shutting down schools unilaterally again. He believes the move exceeded his constitutional authority because school districts are controlled locally.

“To be blunt I think that bill would have a hard time getting through the House,” Petersen said.

The Senate Education and Health Committee didn’t take any action on the bill Wednesday but Newman said it is still on the table.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office didn’t immediately comment.

A handful of education bills advanced to the full Senate with bipartisan support, including excusing student absences related to COVID-19, suspending emergency drill requirements temporarily and mandating schools post coronavirus mitigation plans online.

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