RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday that he’s “hopeful” students will return to school in the fall.
Under a March 23 order from Northam, Virginia became just the second state in the U.S. to close school buildings for the rest of the academic year; Kansas was first to shut down through the end of the school year. Since then, schools across the state have transitioned to virtual learning while feeding students through meal pickup and drop-offs.
The state’s chief executive, who ultimately will decide when school buildings reopen, expressed some optimism during Monday’s news briefing.
“It is very important for me to get our children back in schools,” Northam said. “As soon as we can safely get our students back into the classroom, we will do that.”
He added: “I am hopeful that our students will be back in the classroom this fall.”
Northam commended efforts by school districts to adapt to the pandemic with virtual learning but said it’s “not a perfect solution.”
“Our children and our scholars in colleges and universities are going to be much better back in the classroom because it’s an equity issue,” Northam said, citing the fact that 550,000 families in the state don’t have access to broadband internet. “While it sounds reasonable and encouraging to say that we’re doing a great job educating our children through virtual learning, there are a number of children around Virginia that don’t have that opportunity.”
The governor formally announced Monday an education work group that has been meeting since April 23 to figure out how to reopen schools, rather than when to reopen them. That panel includes officials who specialize in early childhood education, K-12 education and higher education. Among the members is Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, who also is leading a separate task force of Southern states to “identify strategies for re-opening schools and prepare for a potential resurgence of COVID-19.”
“As we begin to think about how Virginia’s education system can operate in the summer and fall, it is crucial that we have the advice of a diverse, thoughtful group of education leaders,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “This group will use their expertise to guide our approach and help ensure that all voices are heard and all recommendations are made through the lens of equity.”
Northam said the panel will create different reopening options.
“It’s not going to be a one-plan-fits-all,” he said.
Many colleges in the state already have announced plans to return to on-campus instruction in the fall.
The task force is expected to release its report by the end of the month with recommendations on the issues schools must address before reopening.
Once that guidance is developed, the group will start work on long-term recovery plans, Northam’s office said, that will address learning gaps and students’ emotional needs as a result of school closures.