Governor Ralph Northam wants Virginia’s schools to provide in-person learning options by March 15, one year and two days after first ordering schools to close on March 13, 2020. On Friday, the governor sent a letter to school districts instructing them to provide in-person options and encouraged the schools to develop learning-loss mitigation strategies.
“Many Virginia students are approaching a full year without in-person access to their school communities. This is having a real and significant impact on their educational and social development—but after a year of experience, we are now equipped as a society to safely open schools and operate them in ways that protect students, teachers, and staff members,” Northam wrote.
In his letter, Northam said almost two-thirds of Virginia’s 133 school had already developed some kind of in-person option.
“But about 40 school divisions currently offer no in-person options, preventing nearly 500,000 students from entering the classroom. This needs to change, even if the decision is difficult,” he added.
Northam did not say how many hours or days in-person schools should provide, but he said the current waiver of the 180-day, 990-hour instruction requirements would not be extended to the 2021-2022 school year. Northam’s letter also allows room for a phased-in approach to the return.
“This may begin with prioritizing students who need in-person learning the most. This includes students with disabilities, students from preschool through third grade, and English language learners,” he wrote. “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. It’s clear that not all students or staff will be comfortable coming back in person for a while.”
In a press release, the governor cited the importance of in-person learning.
“We know that children learn better in classrooms and that going to school is vital for their social-emotional needs and for receiving critical services like meals. It is also important for our youngest learners, students with disabilities, and those with limited access to technology who have struggled most with remote learning. By focusing on mitigation measures, we can provide our kids with safe and equitable learning environments,” he said.
The governor’s announcement drew fire from advocates on both sides of the argument over reopening schools.
“No one wants to be back in those buildings more than we do,” Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman said in a press release. “We know that in-person instruction is the goal, and we believe that we are getting closer to being able to do that every day. However, the best way to move ahead is not to set an arbitrary date.”
Fedderman suggested that Northam was rushing the process. He said, “An expanded summer program, staffed by educators who choose to participate and are paid for their work, will help students and families counter potential learning losses. And those losses, along with the ways to address them, are best determined by educators with instructional goals, not politicians with political ones.”
Gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder said in a statement, “It is sad Ralph Northam continues to ignore the calls from thousands of parents, including myself, who are fighting to open our schools. Parents demand five days a week in school with teachers in the classroom — the CDC agrees. Ralph Northam continues to show no leadership. His half-hearted plan is an insult to parents, teachers and students who want to be back in the classroom.”
“Virginians should be able to make their own decision about whether they send their child to school or not. Schools should be open. I think people should be able to make a decision about lots of things that the government now decides for us. And that’s the kind of leader I want to be. I want to be a leader for Virginians that enables Virginians to live their lives,” gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin said in a statement.
In a statement, gubernatorial candidate Delegate Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said, “It is good news that Governor Northam is finally coming around to push for in-classroom instruction, but this action shouldn’t be mistaken for leadership. It’s too little, too late and as I’ve said before, better late than never just doesn’t cut it.”
Cox said, “Time and time again, Virginians have watched Governor Northam stand up and promise us that he is going to fix something that broke under his watch. But his promises always seem to come weeks after the problem emerged and the fixes come even later. On COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, in-classroom instruction, unemployment benefits, DMV wait times, and vaccine distribution, the governor and his Democratic allies in the General Assembly failed to lead and were slow to react to the disasters that unfolded. And now they must be held accountable for it.”
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