Northam wants Virginia schools to start providing in-person instruction by March 15

By: - February 5, 2021 1:40 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Schools across Virginia will be expected to resume in-person learning by March 15, according to Gov. Ralph Northam, who announced the directive in a news briefing on Friday.

Spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said that while Northam has oversight of the Virginia Department of Education and is overseeing the state’s COVID-19 response, authority over reopening decisions ultimately falls to local school boards — making the governor’s announcement an expectation but not a mandate.

But it’s a dramatically different message than one the state conveyed to local districts for much of the summer and fall, when guidance from VDOE and the Virginia Department of Health emphasized that reopening decisions lay “squarely in the hands of local school boards.” Northam already signaled his intent to return children to the classroom in mid-January, when VDOE released new interim guidance directing divisions to focus more on their own in-school mitigation measures than community transmission and other disease metrics.

“When school divisions were planning this school year, there was a lot of uncertainty,” Northam said Friday. But he also said that data increasingly showed that COVID-19 didn’t spread in schools to the same extent it did in other congregate settings.

“That tells us it’s time to find a path forward to in-person learning,” he said. “In the past 11 months, our children have been champions. They have made sacrifices, they’ve endured a lot of change and uncertainty. But we know this is taking a toll on our children and our families.”

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

In a Friday letter to superintendents and local school boards, Northam clarified that he expected all districts to begin making in-person instruction available by March 15, a process that could begin with prioritizing young learners, English language learners and students with disabilities.

“But plans for in-person learning cannot and should not extend only to these students, and you must begin planning now for the eventual safe return of all students for in-person learning,” he added. 

Yarmosky said Friday that local superintendents were largely supportive of the directive, which Northam discussed with them in a phone call earlier that morning. Two of the state’s largest school divisions have already announced plans to begin phasing students back into the classroom by mid-March.

The directive also came as Northam announced the state’s first confirmed case of the South African coronavirus variant — one that’s more infectious than other forms of the disease. The state’s public health lab in Richmond has also confirmed multiple cases of the United Kingdom variant in Virginia. But the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear to be slightly less effective against the South African variant.

And while state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated vaccinations aren’t necessary for teachers to return to the classroom, some educators across the state have resisted the idea of reopening schools before they’ve been fully immunized.

On Friday, Northam said that while it wasn’t a requirement for all teachers to be vaccinated before districts reopened, he felt confident that many educators will have received their full schedule by mid-March. Virginia’s ranking in vaccine administration has dramatically improved since January, with nearly a million doses administered across the state, according to VDH.

“I’m really confident that if these vaccination sites and clinics continue to go well that a good majority of our teachers will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated and feel safe going back to schools if not by March 15, then shortly thereafter,” he said.

Northam hasn’t been alone in calling for schools to reopen. Earlier this week, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would mandate districts to begin providing in-person instruction if parents requested it. The legislation doesn’t have an emergency clause attached, which means it wouldn’t go into effect until July if it passed both chambers of the General Assembly. But it garnered bipartisan support, with Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, describing it as a “symbolic” measure to signal support for face-to-face learning.

The Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also “celebrated” Northam’s directive, according to a Friday new release from the organization. According to the release, the chapter conducted a survey of 203 pediatricians across Virginia in December to “better identify and address the concerns of our patients and providers.” Among the providers surveyed, 98 percent reported an increase in child and adolescent anxiety and 95 percent reported an increase in depression.

“Even more concerning is the increase in suicidal ideation in children and adolescents with 58 percent of providers reporting an increase,” the report read. Nearly 30 percent of providers also reported an increase in adolescent drug, alcohol or marijuana use, and 43 percent said they had seen an increase in eating disorders. Ninety-seven percent said there had been an increase in reported academic difficulties.

“These findings raise concerns about the potential for academic slide,” the chapter wrote. “There are also concerns about equity gaps in education with private schools open and public closed.”

As part of a statewide effort to address those concerns, Northam asked schools to extend programming into the summer to combat learning loss that’s occurred during the nearly year-long pandemic. What’s less clear is what those summer programs might look like — and how they’ll be funded.

James Lane, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said VDOE is in the process of assembling a workgroup to issue guidance and recommendations on what those remediation programs should include. But he also emphasized that summer learning would likely look different from district to district, given the wide variance in how they’ve been operating since the start of the school year.

Funding continues to be a concern for districts across the state. While the latest federal stimulus package routed a little more than $845 million to Virginia schools, some national models have estimated it could cost roughly $1.1 billion for local divisions to implement safety and sanitation measures and provide intensive summer schooling to their students, according to Chad Stewart, the manager of education policy and development for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond nonprofit. 

Fairfax County, one of the state’s largest school districts, announced Friday that it had budgeted $30 million so far for summer programming.

“While there will be associated costs to the extended summer learning, we understand that these resources are essential to accommodate our students and staff during this unique and challenging transition period,” the district stated.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.