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GOP Lawmakers Call For In-Person School Openings

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GOP lawmakers say the state's guidelines conflict with newly released guidelines that will allow students to go back to in-person school five days a week. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

*Correction: An earlier version of this story gave inaccurate guidelines for recess and social distancing. We have updated the piece and removed the audio version which incorrectly stated that students must remain 6 feet apart - the state guidance is three feet for students wearing face coverings.

A group of Republican lawmakers in Virginia say Gov. Ralph Northam should make it a priority to get students back in the classroom five days a week this fall. And they say updated guidelines announced this week are too confusing for schools. 

State officials sent a 13-page letter to school divisions this week detailing rules that schools have to follow before they can reopen. It says schools can have in- person classes, meet virtually or a combination of the two.

But Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who is an OB-GYN, says the rules are complicating efforts to reopen. 

“School districts are scrambling, arranging disjointed hybrid schedules because of confusion around the guidelines issued by the state and their fear of reopening their doors,” Dunnavant said.

Dunnavant says science and research shows that school-age children are rarely affected by COVID-19. She wants the state to withdraw their guidelines and put in new ones that will allow schools to reopen five days a week. 

“We need a road map of how we can get these schools open. So we can do what’s in the best interest for our parents and that’s not what the guidelines do,” Dunnavant said.

The GOP lawmakers cited new guidelines from both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics that say students should be fine using three feet of social distancing as opposed to the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations of six feet. However, that three-feet recommendation suggests students wear face masks - which is incorporated in the new state guidance as well.

"Therefore, in school settings, schools are encouraged to aim for six feet of physical distance to the greatest extent possible; however, if six feet of distance is not feasible (inclusive of buildings and school buses), schools should implement a combination of face coverings and a minimum of three feet distance between everyone present," the updated guidance says. The latest document replaces an earlier version distributed 

Dunnavent, along with Sen. Jill Vogel, Sen. Jen Kiggans, and delegates Carrie Coyner and Kirk Cox, held a virtual conference Wednesday calling for Northam to “get out of the way,” and let the school board make their own decisions when it comes to reopening. 

“We know how to track the data on this public health crisis, we know how to contain it and we know how to live with it,” said Coyner, who is a former school board member in Chesterfield County. 

Coyner said if schools reopen to five days a week, that will help with inequity issues that  affect children from homes who rely on schools for food and safety. 

Senator Jen Kiggans, who is a nurse practitioner, said there’s a way to open schools safely, and reiterated Dunnavent’s remark that children are least likely to get Covid-19. 

“Children are the least likely age group to get Covid-19 but they’re the ones who are being, just most disrupted by guidelines and procedures being implemented by state officials,” Kiggans said. 

Kiggans said the state shouldn’t be forcing parents to choose between jobs and school. Kiggans also said she’d like to see nurses in school but gave no specific details on how that would be funded. 

Another issue brought up by the Republicans was to protect schools from any possible litigation should they reopen five day a week, in-person classes.

“Right now, too many school districts are in fact having to be forced to make decisions out of fear of litigation rather than what’s best for our children,” Vogel said.

Vogel wants the state to implement policies to protect teachers and school districts by implementing an immunity policy, which she says would allow schools to concentrate on reopening without fears of lawsuits.  

The pushback to the state guidelines comes a day after Pres. Donald Trump said he was going to put pressure on governors to open the schools in the fall.