A grassroots group that favors a virtual-only return to school held a car rally on Wednesday, honking horns as they circled the Hanover County School Board offices in Ashland several times.

We all are parents. We are familiar with the normal anxiety, and also the excitement, that usually sets in this time of year, as questions about school supplies, morning routines and fall sports become daily topics in our homes.

This year parents are dealing with a different anxiety—dread, really—forcing them to consider one big question: How? How do their kids get the education they need in a safe environment while also working full-time jobs amid a global pandemic?

We believe it is a question unfairly thrust upon parents because of a striking failure in leadership at the state level.

Gov. Ralph Northam and his administration spent the spring and summer looking at this the wrong way. They asked “if”—not “how.”

They were debating “if” our kids should go back to school when, really, we all know the answer to that—of course they should. They should have been coming up with a plan on “how” to get our kids safely back in the classroom five days a week.

Local school boards, superintendents, principals and teachers were put in a difficult situation. COVID-19 remains a serious public health crisis and many have understandable concerns about how going back to school affects health and safety.

The American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly has stated that the risk of children being away from school is far greater than the risk of COVID-19. They issued guidelines and best practices that protect both children and teachers to return to in-person learning.

In fact, we have demonstrated we can have adults and children together safely, as thousands of Virginia children have been in child care throughout the entire shutdown.

While essential businesses have remained open this entire time, and other businesses are bringing more people back to work, our public schools remain closed. Education is essential.

Northam’s initial guidance on reopening schools was confusing and unworkable. The second effort was more of the same. The administration failed to give schools the tools to succeed at a very important task.

The vast majority of parents want in-person instruction. Survey results show 82% of parents in Chesterfield County said they would send their children back for full-time, face-to-face instruction.

Sixty-two percent of Henrico County families said they were comfortable sending their children back to school, according to a survey conducted by the school division. The vast majority of teachers want to be back in the classroom teaching, with 91.7% of Henrico teachers saying they planned to return to school when it opened in the fall.

Instead, the governor stepped aside on school reopening.

With most Richmond-area schools now planning a 100% virtual start to school in a few weeks and school districts across the state considering the same, we have to find a way to support families to educate their children virtually.

Parents are having to innovate in the unfamiliar and unsupported territory school districts and the state left them. The reality is many families don’t have the resources to replace the free, safe, quality school they are guaranteed as Virginians.

Funding needs to be redirected to families to help them afford safe, effective places where children can learn while their parents are working, whether it is at home or a child care facility. We need to increase assistance to facilities and programs that can provide this support to expand capacity. And we need to transform the commonwealth’s current deduction for child care into a fully refundable tax credit.

Meanwhile, we need to give the school districts clear direction to find a way to open safely.

With all stakeholders—parents, teachers, administrators and elected officials combined—we must spend the next nine weeks creating a real plan to safely reopen our classrooms.

We must provide guarantees to our schools that the state will reimburse for adequate testing and personal protective equipment for teachers, staff and students. School systems need immunity from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19. Our teachers need paid leave to deal with COVID-19-related matters, either personal or family.

And, we have to provide robust online learning for any family that chooses that path for the school year.

We need to support our teachers and staff by implementing practical precautions to keep them safe—the same type of precautions that have been used to protect essential workers, including day care employees throughout the pandemic.

These are just a few ideas; we are sure there are more. The point is that we have to start working on the “how”—how the state can help parents handle the virtual school thrust upon them; how we can support students already behind in the classroom; and how we can safely get our kids back in the classroom in nine weeks.

There is no greater imperative than the safety and education of our children. Together we can get to “how.”

Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, represents the 12th District in the Virginia Senate and is an ob-gyn.

Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, represents the 66th District in the House of Delegates and is a retired teacher of 30 years.

Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, represents the 62nd District in the House of Delegates and formerly served on the Chesterfield County School Board.

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