RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY/WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam gave an update Friday on the COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Virginia and announced schools needed to offer in-person learning options by March 15.

Northam started the briefing by saying January was a hard month and had a record number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. However, he said the state is now trending downward.

Northam also mentioned that the state has seen several cases of the UK variant of the COVID-19 virus, and on Thursday a private lab detected a case of the South African variant. He said at least one of the strains is more contagious.

Because of this, he said it’s more important than ever that we take precautionary measures, like washing hands and wearing a mask, seriously.

Despite January’s difficulties, Northam made it clear he wants to see some students return to school in-person.

Northam calls on schools to offer some in-person learning by March 15

Northam said every school division in Virginia should make at least some in-person schooling available by March 15, citing CDC guidance and research that shows coronavirus spread is rare in schools when proper safety measures are in place.

“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.

Some students in Virginia — including those attending several Hampton Roads districts — haven’t had any in-person education since mid-March 2020 when Northam ordered schools closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Last month, the Virginia Department of Education (VDE) released new coronavirus guidelines Thursday that encourage Virginia’s school districts to safely hold classes in-person.

“Virginia’s students and their learning have been dramatically impacted due to school building closures over the last year,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane in a statement from the governor’s office. “By providing more in-person instructional opportunities, while implementing strong and consistent health mitigation measures, we can successfully support students’ academic growth and social-emotional well-being.”

However, Northam’s latest action is not an official “mandate.” Rather, it’s a directive.

While Northam oversees the VDE, decisions about schedules are left up to democratically-elected school boards.

“I expect the superintendents, the school boards, our teachers, everybody will come on board with this and get our children back into the classrooms,” Northam reaffirmed.

Local divisions respond

Most schools across the commonwealth have offered some form of in-person learning for a while now, but about 40 districts, including several in Hampton Roads, have been all-virtual.

Virginia Beach and Chesapeake have already begun a return to in-person learning. Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News and Hampton are all currently online only.

10 On Your Side reached out to each of them after the governor’s announcement.

A spokeswoman for Newport News responded that “plans are underway.”

The school board in Portsmouth will discuss the governor’s expectations at its next board meeting on Feb. 18.

A spokesperson for Suffolk said the division’s “plans are still developing and will be discussed” at the next school board meeting on Feb. 11.

Meanwhile, Hampton City schools plans to return pre-K, kindergarten and certain pre-K-12 students with disabilities served in a self-contained environment on Feb. 22. There’s no set timeline for the rest of the students, but the school board plans to meet Feb. 17 and review proposed return dates.

Norfolk Public Schools sent out a news release Friday night saying the division would present an updated plan for returning to in-person learning to the school board no later than Feb. 17. The division currently is 100%-remote learning.

“The administration’s updated plans will include a revised timeline that aligns closely with the approved phased approach for students’ return to school, prioritizing those with critical instructional needs,” the division said.

Support for in-person learning

Anthony Swann, Virginia’s teacher of the year, voiced his support of this decision. He said he is having to play catch up with students when they return from virtual learning rather than moving forward with their education.

Swann said it’s more than just about virtual learning’s impact on education. When he had a student come back to the classroom for the first time they were very excited to see their classmates again.

“He said ‘Mr. Swan I know COVID is here but I’m just so excited to see my friends,’” Swann said.

Reopening coalitions in Virginia, including VA Beach Back2School, released a statement Friday evening on Northam’s announcement, calling it a “welcome and necessary step to addressing the needs of children in the Commonwealth.”

However Brian Teucke, a Gloucester County middle school teacher and district director for the Virginia Education Association, said the directive is “not appropriate.”

“I personally feel safe in Gloucester County, but if you put me in a different county. I don’t know what their metrics are. I don’t know what their capacity is to keep students physically distant,” Teucke said. “The governor contradicts himself when he says ‘We can’t have a one-size-fits-all footprint for education’ but then he comes out with a mandate that is a one size fits all.”

The VEA has repeatedly pushed for all school staff members have the opportunity to be vaccinated before returning to in-person classes.

Vaccinating teachers

Teachers are in the process of getting vaccinated and Northam emphasized how teachers have been prioritized for vaccines as part of phase 1b.

Coronavirus metrics have decreased recently statewide, but still remain higher than most of the pandemic. Some teachers however are still concerned about their health and insist schools should remain closed.

Northam also emphasized summer schooling will not be mandatory, but schools should prioritize it as an option. Northam said federal dollars are available to help and teachers will be compensated beyond their current salaries.

“This could include extensive summer classes, remediation, additional instructional time, or even year-round schooling. You have access to federal funds to pay for this, and the Commonwealth stands ready to ensure that you have the resources necessary to address the loss of learning many students have experienced,” Northam said in a letter to superintendents.

Northam warned if numbers trend in the wrong direction he could change this decision.

“Nothing is written in stone,” he said.

However, with vaccination efforts, he is confident numbers will continue to trend down.

More highlights from Northam’s briefing:

  • Northam says the South African variant of the coronavirus has been identified in Virginia for the first time. At least four versions of the U.K. variant have also been identified.
  • A new state call center is being set up to answer questions and register people for vaccine appointments. 750 people are being trained to help starting tomorrow and the call center will be available starting next week.
  • CVS pharmacies will start administering COVID-19 vaccines in Virginia starting next week, including in Hampton Roads. More are coming through other chains such as Kroger.

Previous coverage

Meanwhile vaccine administration has increased, but Virginia’s vaccine coordinator, Dr. Danny Avula, told 10 On Your Side’s Marielena Balouris more supply will be needed to really ramp up doses given out.

Virginia has been reporting as many as 50,000 doses per day, but some of that reporting is also due to data input catching up.

“Right now, we’re getting 120,000 new doses per week coming into the state, and until we get to 350,000 doses a week, we’re not going to be able to reasonably sustain the 50,000-dose-a-day pace,” said Avula. “If we continue to have a weekly distribution that’s around 120,000 doses, it’s going to be a while,” Avula said. “I would say two to three months before we work through 1b.”