Northam: Get Virginia students back into classrooms

Gov. Ralph Northam pushed for Virginia school systems to begin offering options for in-person learning by March 15 during a news conference Friday.

“Children learn better in classrooms. And that’s where they need to be,” Northam said. “We can do this and we must do this.”

Northam cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden, who have said it’s possible to reopen schools safely.

According to Northam, new data, including a CDC study, suggest schools don’t have the “rapid spread” seen in other settings.

“That tells us it’s time to find a path forward to in-person learning. In the past 11 months, our children have been champions. They have made sacrifices, they’ve endured a lot of change and uncertainty,” Northam said. “And so have their families and teachers and school staff. But we know that this has taken a toll on our children and our families.”

A pediatrician, the governor said fellow doctors are seeing increases in behavioral problems, mental health issues and increases in substance abuse among their young patients.

“They’re writing more prescriptions, such as antidepressants and stimulants, and that’s just not a good direction for us to keep going,” Northam said, adding that there has been a decline in academic performance.

He wants there to be summer school options for students as well to catch up before the fall semester, but it won’t be mandatory. Northam said there are resources available to fund summer learning, first through the federal CARES Act as well as state revenue.

“I want our schools to do this safely. And I want them to prioritize students who need this the most. The guidance lays out the steps for schools to take and the safety precautions that make it possible. But it’s time. It’s time for this to happen. It’s critical to prevent greater learning loss and to support our children’s health and well being,” Northam said.

Fairfax County Public Schools responded to Northam’s news conference Friday afternoon in a statement:

“FCPS has been working hard on the plan to return students to in-person instruction. At the same time, we have been developing supports for students who need additional instruction and engagement this summer to prepare for their next grade level. As we begin to phase in students back to schools on February 16th, we will also be identifying those who will benefit most from summer support.

Importantly, we are continuing to implement crucial social-emotional support structures to provide assistance. Many may be feeling disconnected, and it is imperative that we help all of our students and staff re-engage and re-connect as they come together. We have confidence and hope in our FCPS community and that together, we will succeed in meeting the challenges in the remaining months of the 20-21 school year.

While there will be associated costs to the extended summer learning, we understand that these resources are essential to accommodate our students and staff during this unique and challenging transition period. In our extensive planning, we have budgeted up to 30 million dollars so far to aid our summer learning programming and we know there will be continued demand.

We can all agree with Governor Northam as he states ‘children learn better in the classroom and that’s where they need to be.’

It’s been a long road to get here but our FCPS community is resilient, and they’ve proven it time and time again.”

Many Virginia students have been out of the classroom for almost a year. The state’s largest school systems have approved plans to return to some kind of in-person learning.

In Fairfax County, the school board voted unanimously to approve the latest draft plan for a return to in-school learning. It calls for all students to attend in-person classes twice per week by mid-March.

Students and parents in Fairfax County have pleaded for a return to in-person learning.

“Our mental health struggles are compounded by the fact that our peers who attend private school are thriving, attending school five days a week safely,” one female student said at a board meeting Thursday.

The Fairfax Education Association said that timeline doesn’t allow all county schools staff who want to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to receive both doses before returning to the classroom. “Vaccination is not a silver bullet, and we are not all there yet with full protection,” said Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams.

In Alexandria, the first group of students — kindergartners through fifth-graders with disabilities, as well as students who are learning English — will return to classrooms on March 2.

The Arlington County Public Schools superintendent said he will specify return dates on Feb. 18.

Loudoun County has a plan to bring kindergarten through fifth-grade students — whose parents chose hybrid learning — back to school buildings no later than Feb. 16.

Prince William County is on track to return students to in-person learning in all grades by March 3.

Virginia’s Senate passed a bill Tuesday requiring every local school division to make both virtual and in-person learning available to students. The bill, SB 1303, is now headed to the House of Delegates.

Supporters of the measure said Northam backs the bill and wants it to take effect as soon as it reaches his desk.

Northam signed a proclamation Thursday summoning lawmakers for a special session that would commence Wednesday for the purposes of continuing their work.

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein and Matt Small contributed to this report.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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