Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has signed a bill into law that gives students across the state an excused absence when they use it to “engage in a civic or political event,” such as a protest.
Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest public school system in Virginia, began giving students from 7th-12th grade a day off to protest in January 2020.
House Bill 1940, which was signed by Northam, a Democrat, last Friday, seeks to expand Fairfax’s policy statewide. It directs the Virginia Department of Education to establish guidelines that grant more than 680,000 middle and high school students in over 130 school systems access to one excused absence every year for a protest they may want to attend.
“Having them be engaged in the civic process will make us all better citizens and it was great to have young Republicans, young Democrats and teachers coming together to work on this bill,” said Democratic state Del. Sam Rasoul, who sponsored the bill.
Republican state Del. Wendell Walker voted against the bill, arguing that students shouldn’t engage in politics at the expense of their school time.
“How many days are we going to give them out of school?” Walker said, reported local ABC affiliate WSET. “Young people go to school for a reason. That is to get an education and exposure.”
Fairfax’s time-off-for-student-protests policy caused a controversy when it was first proposed in 2019. Critics argue that the policy potentially undermines the primary purpose of school and can be easily abused as an excuse to skip school, while supporters say that the policy helps students become engaged citizens who understand current events and social issues.
Conservatives have expressed concerns that the policy would become yet another opportunity for liberal teachers to advance liberal causes among young students who barely understand the social and political issues being protested. A 2018 Gallup poll suggested that the urge to participate or organize a public demonstration is almost three times higher in Americans who identify as liberals than their conservative counterparts, meaning that a student is more likely to use the day off to attend a protest for a liberal cause than a conservative one.
Fairfax School Board member Ryan McElveen, who came up with the policy, dismissed such concerns. He told The Washington Post last month that the policy doesn’t favor of any side of the political aisle.
“The fact that it’s now come together across the political aisle is exactly what I would have hoped for,” McElveen said, reported the Post. “The point I tried to make a year-plus ago … is that this is not for liberal causes or conservative causes—it’s for all causes.”