Northam Says It’s Time to Bring Students Back to School

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By Brian Carlton

January 14, 2021

Northam says the Dept. of Education will shift gears. Instead of focusing on remote learning, officials will work on ways to get kids back in the classroom.

RICHMOND-Governor Ralph Northam wants to see students back in the classroom this semester. To do that, on Thursday he announced a new direction for the Virginia Department of Education. Instead of focusing on remote learning, the goal is to get back to the classroom. 

“Instead of [saying] schools should be closed, we’re going to approach it from the point schools should be open and here are the ways to do that safely,” Northam said. 

He added the new guidelines, which went out to districts Thursday afternoon, will lay out a pathway of sorts. They’re intended to show districts how to use different methods to fight infection. 

“All of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen schools,” Northam said. “It’s not going to happen next week, but I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?” 

To be clear, this doesn’t set a date of any kind for reopening. As with the governor’s previous announcements, this isn’t a one size fits all situation. Northam said every district will have to decide what best fits their system, be it all in-person teaching or some type of hybrid schedule. It will also be up to each individual district as to when changes happen, much as it is now. The governor asked districts to work with their local health department to make that decision. 

RELATED: Counties Need COVID-19 Relief for Schools and EMS

Northam Admits COVID-19 is Still Around

Despite the push, COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared. In fact, during early November, Virginia averaged between 1,100 to 1,200 new cases each day. As of Jan. 14, that number is that 4,500 daily. The Virginia Department of Health reports a total of 417,839 cases in the state since the pandemic started. 

So if numbers keep climbing, why pick now to bring students back? Multiple reporters asked that question, phrased in different ways. Northam acknowledged that he wasn’t looking for schools to open up next week or even next month. He just wanted to give school districts details they need to plan ahead. 

Virginia Education Association president James Fedderman agreed, saying districts aren’t quite ready to put kids fully back in the classroom. Before that happens, Fedderman said, all teachers and support staff need to be vaccinated. Also, schools need to set up for social distancing and practice wearing masks. 

“And everyone must do their part,” Fedderman cautioned. “In the schools and just as importantly, at home. If you are anywhere indoors and you are not wearing a mask, you’re not helping us to reopen our schools to in-person learning. Last week, the VEA recommended that all lessons remain virtual until each of our educators are vaccinated and we are heartened that this process has started.” 

Vaccination Begins Across Virginia

Despite Thursday’s announcement, don’t expect the school doors to open anytime soon. With Monday’s move to Vaccination Phase 1B, teachers are now eligible for the shot. Across the state, some districts have already started vaccinating teachers. Others are still waiting. In the Hampton Roads area, for example, only Chesapeake’s teachers have received their first vaccine dose. In southern Virginia, none of the districts have even started vaccinating teachers yet. With that in mind, it will be at least a month before the state is at a point to move forward.

The discussion made no mention of vaccinating students because that’s not allowed yet. Children’s high viral loads mean they are more likely to contract and spread the virus, but are less likely to become seriously ill as a result. However, it has happened. As companies haven’t completed testing on children or teens yet, it will likely be at least early summer before they get vaccinated.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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