Gov. Ralph Northam Says Virginia Schools Must Begin Reopening By March 15
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says schools across the commonwealth should begin offering in-person learning options starting next month.
Last month, Virginia released guidelines for school districts planning to begin offering in-person learning options, emphasizing a focus on younger students and others who have been most adversely affected by virtual learning. Now, school districts have until March 15 to begin the process, in whatever form the district has selected.
The news comes as Virginia races to vaccinate residents — and as the pandemic continues to rage and new variants of the coronavirus crop up in Virginia. But Northam expressed confidence that schools in Virginia could reopen safely.
"We've seen more data now, and it suggests that schools don't have the kind of rapid spread that we've seen in other congregate settings," Northam said, noting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert.
The state will provide funding to help implement the safety measures required for schools to reopen safely, Northam said. Those funds will come from the CARES Act and directly from the state.
Schools in Northern Virginia have been predominantly virtual during the pandemic, but many are releasing details on plans to return students to classrooms. In Fairfax County, the region's most populous school district, students will begin returning to school for two days of instruction per week starting next week. Loudoun County also expects its school district to begin a phased reopening next week. In Alexandria, a phased reopening for schools is expected to begin in early March. Meanwhile, Francisco Duran, the superintendent of Arlington County schools, says he won't set a date for returning to classrooms until Feb. 18, the Washington Post reported.
Northam emphasized Friday that virtual learning has had negative social and emotional impacts on children and their academic performances.
"My fellow pediatricians say they're seeing increases in behavioral problems, mental health issues, even increases in substance abuse in their young patients," he said. "That's just not a good direction for us to keep going."
Northam, who worked for years as a pediatric physician, said the state is also recommending that schools implement changes in structure to catch students up on missed time learning; that might look like summer school or extended school days, he said.
Some teachers and teachers' unions across the state have expressed concerns over reopening plans, particularly if all teachers and staff are not vaccinated by the time school buildings reopen. While Virginia teachers are now eligible to receive vaccines under the state's Phase 1b stage of the vaccine distribution plan, the overwhelming demand and small supply of the vaccine has made securing doses difficult.
In his announcement, Northam expressed gratitude to teachers for their hard work in the face of the pandemic. He also appointed Virginia Teacher of the Year Anthony Swann to the state Board of Education.
"I want to take this opportunity to really thank our teachers, who have really been heroes during this time," he said.
Pressed on health concerns about reopening to partial in-person learning in the midst of one of the deadliest parts of the pandemic so far, Northam pointed to Virginia's childcare centers. These facilities have remained open during the pandemic but have seen relatively few outbreaks, suggesting school reopenings could be done safely, he said. Northam added that schools across the commonwealth that have opened or partially opened could help provide a roadmap for how to handle the process.
But even as the state pushes schools to reopen classrooms, Northam offered a realistic assessment of the pandemic's course in Virginia.
"January was a hard month for COVID cases," he said, noting heightened use of ventilators, ICU beds, and the grim death toll seen across the commonwealth. But Northam said the data is improving. "Those numbers are all trending down, and that is something we can all be glad about."
Nevertheless, Northam said the state's vaccination campaign is in "a race" with newer, far more contagious variants of the coronavirus. The commonwealth has detected a handful of cases of the variant that originated in the United Kingdom, and one case this week of the South African variant (existing vaccines have so far proven to be less effective against this variant).
"We cannot let down our guard," Northam said. "The virus is mutating, changing."
Northam said the commonwealth might change its position on school reopening if the pandemic worsens.
"I'm confident these numbers will continue to trend down," he said. "If for some reason things change, we will be flexible."
In the meantime, Virginia's vaccination program has now given out shots to just over 9% of the state's population, which puts it near the top in rankings of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. That's a turnaround from last month, when the state's performance lagged at the bottom of the list.
But Northam acknowledged the state still has a long way to go. Virginia received 23% more doses this week than it did last week, "a step in the right direction," he said while emphasizing that shots are in short supply.
To help meet the overwhelming demand of people searching for vaccine appointments, Northam said, Virginia will train an additional 750 call center workers to staff the state's COVID vaccine phone lines. The commonwealth will also open a statewide online registration system in the coming weeks. Pre-registrations from local health departments will flow into the larger system.
Also next week, 36 CVS locations across Virginia will open for vaccinations, as part of the first stage of a federal pharmacy program aimed at vaccinating people ages 65 and up, low income people and disadvantaged communities. The CVS vaccinations will be in addition to the doses Virginia is already receiving in its weekly allotments from the federal government, per Northam.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.
© 2023 WAMU 88.5
Questions or comments about the story?
WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.