In a Friday morning press conference, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced that he has directed all Virginia public school district superintendents to make in-person learning options available by March 15.
"By that date, I expect every school division to make in-person learning options available in accordance with the guidance," he said.
Northam attributed the new directions to recently updated guidance from the Virginia Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the support of President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical advisor.
"The experience of school divisions across the state shows us that it's possible to have in-person learning safely," Northam said. "We know the right things to do, requiring masks, keeping desks further apart and more. We have prioritized vaccinating our teachers. We have given school divisions the funding that they need for safety measures."
The announcement came three days after the Loudoun County School Board voted to direct Loudoun County Public Schools staff to re-initiate hybrid in-person learning by Feb. 16, with all grade levels able to partake in hybrid learning no later than March 3.
March 15, according to Northam, will not trigger mandatory, full-time in-person learning for all Virginia public school students, but divisions will have several options so they can tailor in-person learning offerings to the varied needs of their respective communities.
"In the past 11 months, our children have been champions," Northam said. "They have made sacrifices. They've endured a lot of change and uncertainty, 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."
He particularly thanked teachers across the commonwealth, calling them "heroes" and commending them for having adapted to "a new world of virtual learning."
While he acknowledged the numbers relating to Virginia's vaccine supply and community COVID-19 spread remain unpredictable, the governor made clear his confidence in the commonwealth's virus-related metrics as of late. He said the percent positivity rate is trending downward — close to 10 percent — as are the number of hospitalizations, and close to 1 million Virginians have received their first dose of vaccine.
In addition, the state plans to offer assistance to school divisions to provide remedial summer school options, though these programs will not be mandatory for students. Funding for such programs will come from recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, as well as state-level revenue, per the governor.
"Our children need to catch up to be ready for learning in the fall," he said. "I have made it clear to our superintendents and our school boards that it is very important to have these options available this summer, to allow our students to catch up. Again, they have lost so much over the past year, certainly some more than others."
Based on his visits to teacher vaccination sites around Virginia, Northam said he believes teachers wish to be back in the classroom and that most of them "really want to be part of the solution" by lending their services to summer learning.
"There will be some that obviously don't want to — a lot of people take summer vacation, I get it — but we're going to work through it and make sure that we have the resources and the teachers to help our kids get caught back up by the fall," he said.
According to Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, the Virginia Department of Education will soon announce a work group focused on student remediation and recovery called Virginia Learns.
"It will be nuanced, because every school division's situation has been different with the way that they've navigated the pandemic, and our guidance will be flexible enough to help each of them think through the ways that they go about it," Lane said.