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Northam to Schools: Get Kids In Person by March 15

Man behind podium
Gov. Ralph Northam announced he would push schools to reopen for in-person learning by March 15 at a press conference Friday. (Screenshot from briefing)

Gov. Ralph Northam set an ultimatum for Virginia’s school districts Friday, directing them to offer in-person learning for students by March 15.

The governor has been calling for schools to reopen classrooms to students for the past month, saying the emotional and educational toll on students is too great to bear.

“We know this plain fact: children learn better in classrooms, and that’s where they need to be,” he said. “My fellow pediatricians say they’re seeing increases in behavioral problems, mental health issues and even increases in substance abuse... That’s just not a good direction for us to keep going.”

Additionally, Northam urged school districts to plan on expanding summer school options, saying students will need the additional time to make up for learning losses associated with virtual education. 

State Superintendent James Lane said he expects teachers to be compensated for working during the summer, though he remained silent on if that work would be mandated, saying it would look different in each district.

“Some of our school divisions have been open five days a week since August. And what their students need to do in terms of extra time will be vastly different than in communities that have had no in-person learning up until March 15,” he said.

On Thursday, Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who’s running for governor this year, already announced his own plan for bringing Virginia students back to the classroom. In a statement, he criticized the governor’s response, calling it, “too little too late.”

“We now need to focus on fixing the damage that has been done by the extended remote learning. The Governor paid lip service to that yesterday and today, but we need an aggressive plan like the one I rolled out,” Cox said.

The move comes as COVID-19 appears to be on a downswing in Virginia. The 7-day average of cases has fallen to 3,365 cases per day, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That’s down from a high of 6,166 cases per day on Jan. 18, but is still above pre-Thanksgiving levels.

Last month, the Northam administration released guidance to schools on how to safely operate during the pandemic. Those guidelines do not mandate universal teacher vaccination, though teachers are currently eligible for vaccines throughout Virginia. 

Previously, the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, has called for universal vaccination before students are brought back for in-person instruction. The governor, however, has repeatedly claimed that teacher vaccinations are not required for schools to open.

After a sluggish start to the state’s vaccine rollout, Virginia has found itself among the top ten states for per capita vaccinations. Northam praised the state’s efforts, saying logistical changes made last week helped accelerate the process, but noted many Virginians are still waiting to get their shot.

“We still have a long way to go. I don’t want to sugarcoat that,” he said. “Every state wants more vaccine from the federal government. We can’t make it ourselves. So I’m confident, however, that we’re ready when that supply increases.”

The state is currently administering around 38,000 doses per day, though numbers from this week aren’t quite as rosy. VDH data shows less than 20,000 doses were administered on Monday, the lowest number on a weekday since Jan. 6. 

Northam also announced the state has identified its first case of the COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa. Experts say that variant is more transmissible and, unlike the UK variant, is more resistant to the currently approved vaccines.

The governor provided no details on where the case was identified or if the patient had travelled internationally. The state has also identified cases of the variant first identified in the U.K. All four were in the northern part of the state.

Since the start of the pandemic 521,467 Virginians have been infected with the virus. Of those, 6,732 have died.

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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