Wednesday, October 21, 2020

School Health Plan Transparency Bill Signed by Governor Northam

This morning Governor Northam signed a series of billsrelated to COVID-19. Among them was Senate Bill 5083 from Senator Jennifer McClellan. The VEA initiated this legislation and we are grateful to Senator McClellan for carrying the bill for us. We must also mention Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy who filed the identical bill on our behalf in the House, but her bill stalled when it was referred to a committee that never met.

SB5083 requires all public school divisions to make their COVID-19 health and safety plans public and available on their web site in an easy-to-access location. The bill is clear that what is posted should be what was submitted to the VA Department of Education under an order of the VA Health Commissioner. It should not be a few bullets, or a summary. The actual plan needs to be made available. This is a big win for our members as they look for specific information on what their employer will do to keep them safe on the job.

Over the summer, as VEA was engaged on many state-level committees that focused on school reopening, it became clear that while all school divisions would be required to draft and submit a health, safety, and mitigation plan to the VA DOE, there was no requirement that these plans would be made public or easy to access. That is why VEA initiated SB5083. Our members need to know what is in these plans, and now they will be able to access that information.

So what does this mean? SB5083 has an emergency clause, so it is law effective after passage (with a 4/5 majority in both bodies) and the Governor’s signature. School divisions must now all post their plans. Our members should look for these plans, review them, and hold their divisions accountable to the contents of the plans. If there is something in the plan that is not being delivered, members should take that to school leadership and the school board, working with their local Union leaders and UniServ Directors. If there are specific things that should be included in the plan based on CDC recommendations or VA DOE guidance, take that to your school leadership and school board. As decisions are made about returning to in-person instruction, school divisions need to demonstrate their ability to implement five key mitigation strategies.

  1. Consistent and correct use of masks
  2. Social distancing to the largest extent possible
  3.  Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
  4. Cleaning and disinfection
  5. Contact tracing in collaboration with local health department

Look for specifics on these items in the plan.

 As we continue to deal with this pandemic, access to information is critical. The passage of SB5083 is am important win for students, educators, communities, and the VEA. We are grateful to Senator McClellan, Governor Northam, and members of the General Assembly for supporting this important piece of legislation.

 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Is Special Session Over? What Happened?

You saw our post about the conference budget report. The House and Senate agreed to the compromise budget that included both the funding for the lost sales tax revenues and student enrollment hold harmless language (ADM). This was a huge victory for our public schools. These two actions will save us all from deep and significant cuts to our current school year budgets. You can read my assessment of the budget agreement here.

In normal times, agreement on the budget conference report is the last act before the General Assembly adjourns. This is not the case for this Special Session. One item not included in the conference budget report is funding associated with implementing a new amendment to Virginia’s Constitution. As you may know, there is a Constitutional amendment question on the ballot this Election Day. (Go to our Voter Guide and see the item on Question 1.) The question pertains to the establishment of a Redistricting Commission to construct new House and Senate districts as required every 10 years. If the amendment passes and is added to the Constitution, the Governor will propose an addition to the Conference Budget to cover the cost of establishing the Commission.

Here is where the fun of legislative processes comes into play. If a bill is received by the Governor for his signature while the General Assembly is still in session (not yet adjourned), the Governor has 7 days to take action on the bill. If the General Assembly adjourns, bills that arrive at the Governor’s desk at that point are 30-day bills and he has 30 days to act on those. Knowing that the election is less than 30 days away, the General Assembly has not adjourned so that the budget bill remains a 7-day bill. The goal now is to get the budget bill to the Governor as close to Election Day as possible so that the results on the Constitutional amendment will be known when he acts on the budget. Normally it would take about 7 days to get a bill that is agreed to, enrolled, signed by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, get it back to staff to send over to the Governor’s office, but the budget can take longer. So, while the budget is agreed to, it will not be signed until after Election Day. At that time, the Governor will make changes to the budget and send it back to the General Assembly for final agreement. It looks like the General Assembly will come back the week before Thanksgiving to take up any action by the Governor on the budget. Of course, the election results will take more time than normal to be certified because of the huge increase in voting by mail (absentee balloting), so this date is still to be officially determined.

In a year with so much uncertainty, I hoped we would have a signed, sealed, and delivered budget as soon as possible. But that just is not the case. It is intentional, but it keeps us waiting. I feel very confident about the items we were able to secure in the budget adopted during the Special Session, but our items are caught up in some of the maneuvering to give the Governor the chance to address the passage of a Constitutional amendment.

2020 just keeps giving me heartburn.

!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Conference Budget Avoids Worst, Victory on Sales Tax and ADM Protection

 October 15, 2020

Word started breaking late yesterday that there was an agreement between House and Senate Budget Conferees on the amendments to the 2020-2022 Biennial Budget. The conference report eventually was made available for us to see. I won’t lie to you—I was completely relieved when I was able to take a quick look at a couple of top lines.

First thing I looked for was Average Daily Membership (ADM) hold harmless language. As you know, most school divisions have seen a decline in student enrollment as result of COVID-19. The Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) estimates a decline of just about 40,000 students state-wide. While that is a small percentage of the 1.2 million students in our public schools, the decline would result in cuts in the CURRENT YEAR school budgets of up to $150 million. Those cuts would be devastating to most school budgets and most divisions would need to look at furloughs or lay-offs for school employees.

Our members sent emails, made calls, and told their stories to legislators, and we were heard. The conference budget includes full hold harmless language for the 2020-2021 school year. Keep in mind the original Senate budget did not include that language. The Senate also killed a bill that would have held school divisions harmless because they saw it as an issue for the Regular Session in January. Our members changed the minds of the Senate! We must thank the House leadership and especially the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Delegate Luke Torian, for understanding the need for this budget item and fighting for it to be included in the conference report.

The second item I looked for was the $95.2 million we asked for to fill holes left by reduced sales tax revenues for public schools. Again, the House led this fight with Delegate Cliff Hayes including a budget amendment to fill the hole. He was the only member of the House or Senate to fight for this fix from the very beginning. He understood the need and he proposed a solution. Both the House and Senate included the money in their budgets, and we are very glad to see that the conference budget keeps the allocation in place. Again, our members called, emailed, and reached out to their legislators to let them know the potential impact on the CURRENT YEAR budget without this help. We were heard. This action, along with the ADM language, will protect jobs and ensure that we maintain the educational capacity in our public schools to bring students back to our school buildings once it is safe to do so.

Sadly, we are now at a place where we needed to triage the most threatening wounds to our current budgets. We won that battle, but the victory our public schools need is still ahead. We have not recovered from the devastating cuts left over from the 2009 recession and now we are facing another economic downturn without a clear end in sight. Virginia cannot allow our public schools to be the last to recover. This crisis has shown everyone the economic driver our public schools are. It has also laid bare the inequities that exist across the Commonwealth and between neighborhoods. The pandemic has exposed for all to see the impact of our delays in closing the digital divide, our lack of systemic support for our at-risk students who live in poverty,  the impact on our Special Education students when their IEPs aren’t met or staffed, the lack of sufficient school staff to support the mental health and safety of our students, the role our schools play in feeding students, and the role our public schools play in supporting working parents and families.

While the pandemic has shown us how far we need to go, there is a path to follow. For the last five years the Virginia Board of Education has issued and prescribed revisions to the Standards of Quality that are focused on equity of opportunity and equity of services. It is well past time for the General Assembly to do more than what we have seen each session in each of these years—agreement in principle but not in dollars. “We would if we could, but we can’t” is not an acceptable plan. Instead the General Assembly needs to prioritize our public schools and follow the clear path the Board has laid out. You don’t need to leave breadcrumbs; the path is completely mapped out—adopt and fully fund the revisions to the Standards of Quality as prescribed by the Board of Education. Yes, it is expensive, but our public schools have been waiting for more than a decade, and they have been underfunded every single year of that decade. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our public schools, on our kids, and on our families should be all the evidence that is needed to make our public schools Virginia’s number one priority. It is well past time.

Friday, October 2, 2020

VEA’s COVID-19 Transparency Bill Passes and Will Make a Difference!

 Today SB5083 took its final step in becoming law, approved by the Senate after earlier unanimous passage in the House. little hurdle in the House, we were able to get a clarifying amendment added to the bill, and the Senate accepted it today.  

The bill, carried by Senator Jennifer McClellan, requires each school board to post—in a publicly accessible and conspicuous location on its website—its plan for mitigating the spread and public health risk of the COVID-19 virus, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Virginia Department of Health recommendations. 

 

Before returning to instruction, each school division was required to develop a COVID-19 health and safety plan and submit it to the Virginia Department of Education. The issue was that there was no requirement to post the plans where any employee or parent could access it. While many school divisions did post the plans, many did not. Now they must. Our bill has an emergency clause which means that plans must be posted as soon as Governor Northam signs the bill, which is expected quickly. 

 

The VEA is grateful to Senator McClellan for getting this bill through with the votes needed to pass it with the emergency enactment. We are also grateful to Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy who patroned the House version of the bill. Like Senator McClellan, Delegate Carroll Foy chose this bill as one of only three she could submit during the Special Session. We are grateful to her for her willingness to fight for this issue. Unfortunately, the House bill was assigned to the House Education Committee, which never met, so the bill never got out of the gate. We are glad we had a Senate bill as the vehicle.  

 

So why is this bill important? Because our members will now know what plans their school divisions put in place to keep them and their students safe. Our members can now hold their divisions accountable for the contents of the plan. Also, if there is something that should be in the plan that isn’t there, our members should advocate for revisions.  

 

Additionally, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Health and Safety Codes Board included school employees in their COVID-19 Safety Standard. School employees are identified as a medium level exposure risk. In the standard they offer the following language:  

A public school division or private school that submits its plans to the Virginia Department of Education to move to Phase II and Phase III that are aligned with CDC guidance for reopening of schools that provide equivalent or greater levels of employee protection than a provision of this standard and who operate in compliance with the public school division’s or private school’s submitted plans shall be considered in compliance with this standard.” 

 

Without a requirement that these plans are made public, school employees could not be certain what is contained in these plans or if their school is incompliance with the plan as required by the Safety Standard.  

 

After the governor signs the bill, be sure to visit your school division’s website and read your local plan. Know what is in it and advocate for anything that is not. Contact the VEA if you need any assistance.