Democrats Debate: How Do You Fix A Pandemic’s Educational Damage?

By Brian Carlton

May 21, 2021

All five candidates outlined how they would help schools recover from COVID-19’s educational damage.

RICHMOND-The COVID-19 pandemic damaged Virginia’s educational system. That fact isn’t in doubt. The number of middle and high school students who earned F grades in at least two classes jumped 83% in the first quarter of this year. We also highlighted the struggles for houseless students earlier this week. How do we repair the educational damage done? Virginia’s Democratic candidates for governor tackled that question during Thursday’s debate.

Some offered detailed proposals. Others pulled from their campaign speeches. Each one looked at the issue from a different angle. 

Former Del.Jennifer Carroll Foy went to the classroom earlier this year to ask teachers and administrators what they need. The former delegate held a roundtable discussion where school officials outlined both the problems and what’s needed to fix them. 

“We need to address the deficit in learning and the loss of learning that many of our students [are dealing with],” Carroll Foy said. “Not only that, [but] many of our kids have been sheltered in place with their abusers, so there’s going to be mental health consequences as well.” 

How do you address that? Carroll Foy wants to see an extra semester of school over the summer, where teachers can help students catch up. Beyond that, she wants to put teacher aides in the classrooms, to further help students this fall. On the mental health side, Carroll Foy said she would push for one counselor for every 250 students. 

That number comes from the American School Counselor Association and Virginia is not even close. Right now, the Commonwealth provides one counselor for every 348 students. That’s 40% less than the ASCA’s number, but at least better than the national average, which sits at one counselor for every 444 students. 

‘Between Households, Not Just Zipcodes’ 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan is another candidate who deals with the school system on a regular basis. That’s because she has a kindergartener and a fifth grader in Richmond City Public Schools. 

“I have seen the inequities that were already in our system have been made worse [by the pandemic],” McClellan said. “Now [they’re] between households, not just zipcodes.” 

To start addressing the educational damage, McClellan said she would give cities and counties more flexibility. If a district needs to extend their school day, they could. If switching to a year-round model makes more sense, McClellan said she would support that too. It’s basically the idea of going away from a one-size-fits-all mentality and letting districts determine what works best for them. Beyond that, McClellan said she would lift the current cap on support personnel, like teacher aides, to get some more help in the classroom. 

During the Great Recession, the Virginia General Assembly put a cap on school support staff. That includes cafeteria workers, social workers, psychologists and even janitors. While that was more than 10 years ago, nobody’s ever lifted the cap. In fact, despite school enrollment growing by 55,000 over the last decade, support staff continued to drop by 2,800 during that time. 

McClellan wants to remove the cap, giving schools more support as they help kids get back on track. Finally, McClellan said she would help students by funding repairs for their crumbling school buildings. 

No actual bills to fund school reconstruction have made it out of the General Assembly over the last two years. In 2020, the group created the Commission on School Construction and Modernization, which McClellan now serves on. That group’s next meeting is set for June 3.  

‘The Commonwealth Has To Step Up’ 

Current lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax also wants to rebuild older schools, but he’s more specific. Fairfax proposes what he calls a 40-30-10 plan. That means rebuilding and reimaging every school over 40 years old in the Commonwealth. He would allocate $30 billion for it over the course of 10 years. 

That helps students get back on track by improving the buildings they learn in. It’s a lot easier to charge laptops and work on wifi when you have more than one electric outlet in the room. For some schools, especially in the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia, that’s not always the case. 

Del. Lee Carter wants to take a different approach. The former Marine, who has four kids, including a new baby, sees a clear problem and a way to solve it. 

“I think we need to directly tackle the inequities that exist in our education funding,” Carter said. “We have some localities where parents choose between the best public schools that any locality can offer or choice private schools. We have other localities where there is no option at all and all you get is a building that is crumbling down around the students.” 

Carter’s solution is twofold. First, he wants the state to significantly increase its share of funding for all K-12 schools. Funding is split between the state and local cities or counties. The problem comes through unfunded mandates, as the state orders changes but doesn’t provide the funds needed to see them through. That leaves local cities and counties to determine how to pay, which usually means either budget cuts elsewhere or tax increases. 

To help students recover from the pandemic, Carter said he would immediately call for more state funds to help struggling districts. Then he would push for a constitutional amendment, so that future governors wouldn’t be able to take that money away again. 

“We have to make sure [increased funding’s] not limited to just one governor’s term,” Carter said. “[We can] amend Virginia’s constitution to provide a real guarantee that every student shall receive an equal high quality education as a constitutional mandate that can be enforced by the courts.” 

Fixing Educational Damage Through Broadband

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, meanwhile, made a clear promise, complete with a timeframe. 

“I promise you within two years of being governor, every child [will] have access to broadband,” McAuliffe said. “We need connectivity. Children don’t have connectivity so they have to go to McDonald’s to a wifi hotspot. I will get everybody wifi.” 

Overall, just 53% of homes in the Commonwealth have broadband access. Eleven percent of Virginians don’t have internet access of any kind, according to the 2019 Commonwealth Connect report.  

Also, to help Virginia recover from the educational damage, you need to retain teachers. As Dogwood reported previously, Virginia has a shortage of 1,000 teachers. McAuliffe pointed out the problem is they can go to other states and make more money. 

“Teachers can go to Maryland, to Delaware and Pennsylvania and get $10,000 to $20,000 more,” he said. “So let’s raise our teacher pay above the national average.” 

The Democratic primary is set for June 8, with one final debate between now and then. That last one will take place June 1. 

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

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