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Virginia governor calls on all schools in state to reopen by March 15

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is calling on all schools in the state to offer some form of in-person learning by March 15, marking a major escalation in the ongoing battle among elected officials, administrators, teachers and families over when and how to reopen classrooms.

The governor’s request — made in a call with superintendents statewide Friday morning, as well as in a formal letter — is an expectation and not an order, according to spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. But she said the governor feels confident that every Virginia school system will be able to reopen on his timeline.

At a news conference Friday, Northam (D) said that all the superintendents on that call, which he characterized as frank and open, “are in line, if you will,” with his plan.

“In-person learning won’t look the same for every school division, and it won’t look the same as it did a year ago, but we need to make a start,” he said. “We can do this, and we must do this.”

Northam wrote in his letter to superintendents that it has been nearly a year since most Virginia school divisions shuttered in response to the pandemic. Since then, nearly two-thirds of the state’s 133 systems have reopened their doors, he wrote — but roughly 40 systems, including some of the largest and most prominent, are offering no in-person instruction.

“This needs to change, even if the decision is difficult,” Northam wrote. “To prevent irreparable learning loss and psychological damage, I expect every school division in the Commonwealth to make in-person learning options available” by the March deadline.

The governor reiterated a suggestion he made Thursday in a live-streamed video interview with The Washington Post — that schools may have to offer some form of summer instruction to help repair learning loss. Studies have shown that online school is causing a spike in failing grades and widening the equity gap in academic achievement.

“This could include extensive summer classes, remediation, additional instructional time, or even year-round schooling,” Northam wrote. “The Commonwealth stands ready to ensure that you have the resources necessary to address the loss of learning many students have experienced.”

At the news conference Friday, Northam said he has emphasized to superintendents that “it is very important” to develop and offer summer school options.

Asked about funding, Northam said Cares Act dollars can support summer learning. He said the state also has revenue available.

“I assure you this is a commitment of mine, and we will do everything we can to support it financially,” he said.

Speaking after Northam, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said summer school is not the only tactic state educators will pursue to help repair pandemic-induced learning loss. Lane said that the Virginia Department of Education is putting together a work group “focused on remediation and recovery.”

“That work group will put together a document that will address how to address student learning loss, how to think about flexible calendars,” Lane said. He said officials will release more information soon.

The governor’s call to reopen Virginia schools echoes a similar call made by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) last month, when Hogan said that all schools in his state should welcome students back to classrooms by March 1.

And it follows on the heels of reopening announcements from some of Northern Virginia’s largest school systems. Over the past week, the school divisions in Fairfax and Loudoun counties vowed to begin returning students this month, with the hope of sending all children whose families choose to do so back to some form of in-person learning by mid-March.

Alexandria City Public Schools sets date for reopening; Arlington refuses to follow suit

At a board meeting Thursday night, the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools said the school system of 16,000 students will start returning children to classrooms on March 2. The first batch will include kindergartners through fifth-graders with disabilities, as well as children in that same age group whose first language is not English. From there, Alexandria will return more children each week — prioritizing students with disabilities and English-language learners — until March 16, when children of all grade levels who choose hybrid learning will be able to return for two days of in-person learning every week.

The only holdout is Arlington Public Schools, whose officials have repeatedly refused to set a firm date for the return to in-person learning. Also on Thursday night, Superintendent Francisco Durán told board members — and hundreds of listening parents, many of them emotional — that he was not ready to commit to a firm date for the launch of in-person learning. Some parents spoke at the meeting to demand reopening, while others argued against it, requesting improved safety measures before youths return to classrooms.

Durán noted that although Arlington has seen a decrease in its case incidence rate over the past week, the county continues to exceed the “highest risk” category of coronavirus transmission.

“We’re going to continue, and I’m going to continue, to make the best decisions for the children of Arlington,” he said.

Northam’s announcement also comes as President Biden steps up the pressure to reopen schools. Biden spoke of school reopenings in his inaugural address and later said he would like to see most K-8 schools reopen during his first 100 days in office.

The governor referred to Biden in his letter, as well as a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that schools operating in person have seen scant transmission of the coronavirus, as long as administrators follow necessary health protocols, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

CDC finds scant spread of coronavirus in schools with precautions in place

Northam noted that Virginia has allocated significant funding to provide school systems with personal protective equipment. He also wrote that the state prioritized teachers for vaccinations — they were included in the early, “1b” phase.

“We are now equipped as a society to safely open schools and operate them in ways that protect students, teachers and staff members,” he wrote. “Now, we must work together to bring students back to school.”

Northam said that plans for in-person learning can begin with the most vulnerable students — children with disabilities, English-language learners and the very young — but that plans must eventually extend to the “safe return of all students.”

Still, he wrote, school systems should maintain a remote-only option, given that some staffers and families may not feel comfortable returning to buildings for a long time.