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Northam wants kids back in class

Gov. Ralph Northam called on all K-12 school divisions in the commonwealth Friday, Feb. 5, to make in-person learning options available by March 15.

A press release from the office of the governor added that in recognition of significant learning losses over the past year, Northam also encouraged school divisions to offer classroom instruction as an option during the summer months.

The school systems in Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward counties have already begun to offer in-person instruction, and the Buckingham and Cumberland superintendents noted Friday that their divisions are already talking about summer learning possibilities.

“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), which updated their guidance last week, say it’s possible to do this safely,” Northam said of in-person instruction during a Friday press conference. “(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director) Dr. (Anthony) Fauci has said it’s possible to do this safely. President (Joe) Biden has said it’s possible to do this safely. And we will do it safely. And the experience of school divisions across the state shows us that it’s possible to have in-person learning safely.

“Day care centers and early childhood educators have demonstrated this throughout the year. We know the right things to do — requiring masks, keeping desks further apart and more.”

The governor, along with top state education and public health officials, communicated his new education goals to school superintendents on a call Friday morning and in a letter, the press release stated.

“The health and safety of students, educators, school personnel and communities continues to be our top priority,” Northam said in the release. “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.”

During the press conference, Northam highlighted the toll remote learning has taken on children. He said his fellow pediatricians say they are seeing increases in behavioral and mental health problems and substance abuse. The doctors are writing more prescriptions for antidepressants and stimulants. School divisions are also seeing a decline in students’ academic performance.

In the release, Northam stated in-person learning is also important for the youngest learners, students with disabilities and those with limited access to technology who have struggled most with remote learning. By focusing on mitigation measures, kids will be provided with safe and equitable learning environments.

“Prince Edward County is very excited to have all of our children return to school,” Prince Edward County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Johnson said. “We began to return in November and have phased in pre-kindergarten through 12(th grade) as of today, Feb. 8th. Further, we continue to employ stringent mitigation strategies to keep our children and staff members safe.”

Northam also announced that his administration will be working to support local decisions around expanding summer learning opportunities, the release stated.

“This won’t be mandatory, but it definitely needs to be an option,” Northam said during Friday’s press conference in reference to expanded summer learning. “Our children need to catch up to be ready for learning in the fall. I want our schools to do this safely, and I want them to prioritize students who need this the most.”

Buckingham County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Daisy Hicks said her division had already been moving in that direction.

“We’d already looked at options for summer school and using the CARES Act funding to offer more slots and more opportunities for students to come in for summer school,” she said.

She noted CARES Act money could help pay for teachers and transportation.

Cumberland County Public Schools (CuCPS) Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones said even before the governor’s announcement Friday, he and his staff have been talking about what the summer would look like for his division.

“We will offer some type of summer learning opportunities for students, so that is in our plan,” he said, adding it will probably be four weeks in June, and they are thinking Monday-Thursday. “So we’re just in the initial planning stages for that, but that has been our intent all along was to offer some type of summer learning opportunity for (K-12) students.”

He said CuCPS does receive some summer school remediation money from the state, but the school division will look at other funding sources, like CARES Act money, if needed.

The release noted the Northam Administration is in the process of determining additional resources to support expanded summer learning as an option for school divisions to offer.

“We have the resources available, and they’ll come from a couple sources,” Northam said during the press conference, first pointing to Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. “And then also, we have revenue at the state level, but I can assure you that it is a commitment of mine, it’s a commitment of ours, and we will do everything that we can to support it financially.”

During the press conference, State Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said that as it relates to year-round school, it would certainly be the state government’s expectation that teachers would be compensated for any additional time over and above their contract.

Northam addressed a question about how expanded summer learning will impact teachers and their traditional schedules.

“I’ve had discussions with a lot of teachers, and again, I can’t speak on behalf of everybody, but I think the majority of our teachers in Virginia really want to be part of the solution,” he said. “They realize that our children have suffered, and their families have suffered through this, and so I expect there will be a lot of teachers that will say, ‘We want to be back in the classroom. We know our children need to catch up, and we’re going to do everything that we can to help that system along.’

“There will be some that obviously don’t want to,” he added. “A lot of people take summer vacation. I get it. But we’re going to work through that and make sure that we have the resources and the teachers there to get our kids caught back up by the fall time.”