Virginia's public school systems must begin re-opening for in-person learning by March 15, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered Friday.
In addition, Northam said he will encourage school divisions to offer classroom instruction during the summer months for those who choose. Additional summer classes will not be mandatory, however.
Northam's administration provided guidelines on school reopenings last month. "We didn’t say, 'Throw open the doors five days a week starting tomorrow," he noted. "We said, 'Here are the steps you need to take.'"
In Northern Virginia, all school districts except Arlington County's have either resumed some in-person instruction or announced plans to do so. Northam said school systems must have options in place for in-person learning by March 15, not necessarily be open by that date.
Northam said during a news conference in Richmond on Friday morning that students statewide are struggling academically and that pediatricians are reporting increased cases of behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues among students.
"Children learn better in classrooms and that’s where they need to be," he added. “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 that the CDC and other experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have indicated that schools are safe. Virginia public schools closed to in-person learning last March.
"We've seen more data now, and it suggests that schools don't have the kind of rapid spread that we’ve seen in some other congregate settings," Northam said.
He did not provide specifics for how much in-person learning school systems must offer.
"In-person won't look same for every school division, but we need to make a start," Northam said. “We can do this, and we must do this.”
Regarding summer school, Northam said his administration will support local efforts to expand summer learning opportunities and may provide additional resources to do so. Summer school or an extended school year will not be mandatory, however.
"It definitely needs to be an option," he said. "Our children need to catch up to be ready for learning in the fall.”
Virginia's superintendent of public instruction, James Lane, said the state is forming a study group that will make recommendations regarding how school systems can address learning loss during the pandemic and develop flexible school calendars. Changes could include longer school days, adding school days to the calendar or adopting a year-round school calendar.
He said the state has CARES Act money from the federal government to help local school systems with any increased costs.
"If they need extra support from the state we’ll be there to help," Lane added.
Prince William County School Board Chair Babur Lateef noted in a Facebook post that Prince William had some special education students in classrooms in September and began returning other students on an optional, hybrid basis in early November.
"We have never halted the in person instruction since they have entered school," Lateef wrote. "Our teachers and staff are heroes. We have succeeded and hope to succeed despite the enormous challenges ahead. We are on track to comply with the governor’s request with our current plan."