Wednesday, August 19, 2020

VEA-Initiated Bill on COVID Transparency Passes Unanimously

Special Session -- August 19, 2020

The Senate has gotten off to a quick start this Special Session. This morning, under the efficient leadership of the Chair, Senator Louise Lucas, the Senate Education and Health Committee heard 22 bills. One of them, Senate Bill 5083, was initiated by the VEA and patroned by Senator Jennifer McClellan and Senator Ghazala Hashmi.

Through orders by the Governor, all public schools in the Commonwealth are required to submit a plan to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) outlining the provision of new instruction to all students in the 2020-2021 academic year, regardless of phase or the operational status of the school at the time. Additionally, per an Order of Public Health Emergency from the State Health Commissioner, all public and private schools are required to submit to the VDOE a plan outlining their strategies for mitigating public health risk of COVID-19. The VDOE has the authority to require the local school divisions to post their instructional plans on the division’s web site so that the plans are publicly available. However, because the requirement that schools submit a health and safety plan came from an order of the Health Commissioner, the Department of Education does not have that same authority for the school health and safety plans. While many school divisions will likely post their health and safety plans, they are not currently required to do that. SB5083 fixes that problem.

SB5083 requires all public schools to post their heath and safety plans where they are easily accessible on the division’s web site. These plans require the school divisions to lay out their policies on face coverings, social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing procedures, screening of students and staff, and isolation procedures. The VEA thinks it is important for school employees and parents to be able to review these plans, and SB5083 will make sure there is full transparency. In more good news, SB5083 passed the full committee unanimously, which is a good sign that we will meet the 4/5 vote to keep the emergency clause. If a bill passes with the emergency clause, it becomes effective upon passage. Obviously, we have schools that are already back in session, so getting these plans posted is a time-sensitive issue.

On another note, the VEA appreciates Senator Dick Saslaw for very quickly making a motion to kill Senator Amanda Chase’s voucher bill. For some reason, Senator Chase seems to believe that if any public school doesn’t open for full-time instruction, schools should send all of the state funding for each student to the parents to use for childcare. Defunding our public schools during a pandemic is atrocious. Period.  The end.

There were other interesting bills that came to the Senate Education and Health today:

SB5004 from Senator Kiggins would require that every school in the Commonwealth employ a Registered Nurse. This has been a top priority for the VEA for years, so we were happy to see this bill pass through the committee, but it was referred to the money committee where its fate doesn’t look good.

SB5068 from Senator Peake allows any school board to waive the required student health screenings and safety drills that are currently required by law. During the pandemic, these requirements become difficult to impossible, so this is a good bill. It also passes unanimously and has the emergency clause.

SB5069 from Senator Ruff will protect schools from losing per-pupil funding by allowing the use of the Average Daily Membership (ADM) numbers from the highest watermark during the state of emergency. This bill will ensure that lower enrollment numbers now won’t result in an even bigger hole in school budgets next school year.

SB5094 from Senator Dunnavant requires each school board to provide to each teacher in the local school division up to 14 days of paid leave, in addition to any other paid leave to which such individual is otherwise entitled, that may be used in the event that the teacher has or has been exposed to COVID-19. The bill passed nearly unanimously with a referral to the money committee. It will have a tough time there, honestly.

SB5100 also from Senator Dunnavant would provide excused absences for students diagnosed with COVID-19 or who live in a household with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. This bill also passed today.

The budget is still up in the air. Send your legislator an email RIGHT NOW to maximize K-12 funding.

Later today the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor will meet where we will see worker’s compensation bills and the Paid Sick Days bill that the VEA supports. The committee meeting will go late, so I will report on that one tomorrow.