Virginia Lawmakers Expand Public School Curricula With New Topics

The General Assembly introduced several proposals to update public school curricula, including education around food allergies, mental health, hazing and overdose prevention.  Some legislative proposals add a specific focus to the current curriculum, while others are completely new.

The bills to add new instruction had good intentions, but many did not explain what they were going to replace, according to Chad Stewart, policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association. “When you add one thing in, you can either cover everything in less depth, or something needs to come out,” Stewart said.

There is not a set timeline for when students will start to receive the new instruction that passed the legislature if it was not included in the bill, according to Stewart. Lawmakers are encouraged to put a timeline on bills that require action from the Virginia Board of Education, he said.

The Board usually reviews the Standards of Learning for each subject every seven years. Teachers, parents and researchers weigh in, which allows student education to be built upon and ensures high quality and thoughtful new curriculum, according to Stewart.

“When push comes to shove, you have to prioritize what are the most important things for students to learn about,” Stewart said.

Below are the proposed topics that passed and failed:

Mental health

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, introduced House Bill 603, which adds a mental health curriculum to be taught in physical or health education class. Del. Holly Seibold, D-Fairfax, and Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, both educators, co-patroned the bill.

The instruction will include topics such as social and emotional learning, signs and symptoms of common mental health challenges, healthy coping mechanisms and the connection between mental health and substance use disorders.

Almost 70% of public schools across the country have reported an increase in students seeking mental health services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to April 2022 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

There’s been more interest in adding this type of instruction for students and educators since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Stewart.  “I’d say we’re really at the beginning of the process here for expanding outward and making sure that this is part of explicit instruction in school,” Stewart said.

Del. Rozia Henson, D-Woodbridge, introduced HB 224, which adds specific topics to be covered in a mental health awareness training. Teachers and personnel are required to have such training, but the topics are not outlined.

The training will help school personnel better understand and address the needs of high-risk students. According to the bill, high-risk students may have experienced suicide of a loved one, have mental or physical disabilities or a chronic health condition, struggle with substance use, have housing instability or identify as LGTBQ+.

The training can be given through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, a community services board, a behavioral health authority, a nonprofit organization or another certified trainer.

HB 603 and HB 224 both passed the General Assembly. Neither bill states when the instruction will be implemented.

Another recent initiative comes as part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “Right Help, Right Now” plan. The Virginia Department of Education created the Office of Behavioral Health and Wellness in January.

The office aims to assist schools with behavioral health, including a focus on school counseling, chronic absenteeism and social media impact. Health and wellness will center on drug use and overdose prevention. Student services will remove “wrap-around barriers” and better help military families, and students in foster care, according to the VDOE.

Opioid Prevention

Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, introduced SB 726, which requires school boards to create instruction on opioid overdose prevention and reversal for grades nine through 12. The bill incorporates a similar measure from Sen. Stella Pekarsky, D-Fairfax.

This type of education includes how to administer medication such as naloxone, the generic form of Narcan, to reverse an opioid overdose. The instruction was originally required to be completed before graduation; bill language now only encourages completion.

The bill also requires all public schools to have a two-dose supply of naloxone. At least one school nurse or other employee must be trained in its administration.

Public schools are currently allowed, not required, to have a supply of naloxone and train staff how to use it.

The bill passed both chambers unanimously, excluding four legislators who did not vote and will be incorporated into school curriculum by the 2025-2026 school year.

Allergic Reactions

Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 121, a measure that adds severe allergic reaction awareness training to health education curriculum for students in ninth and 10th grades.

Students will learn about allergen types, how to distinguish between a normal allergic reaction and a severe reaction— or anaphylaxis—and how to respond to it.

High school students who felt the current SOL did not provide enough information on how to respond to anaphylaxis brought the idea to Sullivan, he said during the House session.

The bill passed both chambers. The instruction will be added the school year after the Board adds it to the SOL.

Hazing Prevention

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced SB 379 to require that research-based hazing instruction be taught to students in ninth or 10th grade. Del. Atoosa Reaser, D-Loudoun, introduced the companion HB 719.

The instruction will include examples of hazing and its dangers, consequences of alcohol intoxication and laws regarding hazing, such as bystander intervention.

Senate lawmakers voted to pass the House bill on the third anniversary of VCU college freshman Adam Oakes’ hazing death.

The bills will be implemented the school year after the Board incorporates the measures into the SOL. Youngkin recently signed SB 379.

Local Government

Del. Chad Green, R-York, proposed HB 41 to teach seniors about local government across Virginia.

The instruction would have included types of localities, and the structures and functions of local governments. The Board of Education would also be required to consider diploma awards for excellence in civics education.

The instruction aimed to emphasize the importance of youth civic engagement, Green said at a House subcommittee meeting.

The history SOL was updated in April 2023 to likely include this instruction, Shane Riddle with the VEA said at the subcommittee meeting.

HB 41 was continued to next year by a House subcommittee, which suggested making sure the current SOL covers the topics.

Internet Safety

Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauqier, proposed HB 706, for middle and high school-age students to learn about internet safety.

Public colleges and universities would also be required to provide the principles of this instruction in a general education course, first-year orientation or similar program.

The bill was left in a House education subcommittee after testimony that many schools already implement this type of instruction, according to Stewart.

Composting Education

Del. Karen Keys-Gamarra, D-Fairfax, proposed HB 166 to require VDOE to post on its website the resources of local learning programs that compost organic material, including food waste, for sustainable purposes.

Keys-Gamarra told a House subcommittee that students are interested in composting to “help improve the environment,” and redirect waste from landfills.

VDOE would also have to provide guidance and resources on available grants and other sources of funding for such programs. Participation would be voluntary.

“It is a wonderful experience for our students,” Keys-Gamarra said. “They enjoy, believe it or not, getting involved in the dirt and figuring out where their food goes and understanding that whole process.”

The bill passed the House, but was killed in a Senate subcommittee.

By Alyssa Hutton / Capital News Service

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