Northam releases new guidance to reopen schools, expands vaccine eligibility

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) –In his COVID-19 update, Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled new guidance aimed at reopening public schools.

Meanwhile, the state is expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations in ‘Phase 1b,’ which some health districts started earlier this week.

Reopening schools

Northam said discussions surrounding year-round schooling continue as a long-term solution to make up for instruction lost during the coronavirus pandemic. As of Thursday, the state had yet to make a decision on that policy.

Instead, the Virginia Department of Education released updated guidelines to localities on how to resume in-person learning safely.

“The emphasis will change,” Northam said. “Instead of schools should be closed we’re going to approach it from the starting point of schools need to be open and here are the ways to do that safely.” 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane said this won’t happen immediately but school boards are expected to reconsider their plans in the coming weeks.

Lane said the new guidance expands factors localities should take into account. He said community spread of COVID-19 will still be part of the equation but not the only indicator driving decision-making. The guiding principles outlined by VDOE include:

  • Support in-person learning considering both students and staff. Account for the learning needs and the health needs of all students.
  • Prioritize younger learners, students with disabilities, and English Learners
  • Put education first. Prioritize educational opportunities over extracurricular activities or other events in the school and surrounding community. Establish reasonably safe in-person educational environments and then think through including extracurriculars and athletics.
  • Focus on prevention. Establish a school culture of adherence to mitigation strategies both in and out of school. Encourage people to physically distance, wash hands, and wear masks. Coordinate closely with your local health department. Educate students/staff to monitor health daily and stay at home if they have symptoms, and follow public health recommendations.
  • Consider community needs. Consider disease data and understand the socioeconomic factors, literacy barriers, and other educational needs in your community when making plans.
  • Be flexible and innovative. Scientific knowledge evolves rapidly, and local context is incredibly important. Decisions about instructional modality ideally should be made for shorter periods of time (e.g. 2-4 weeks) in response to changing disease dynamics rather than for longer periods or months ahead of time.

The announcement comes after the Virginia Education Association called on public schools to move to all-virtual instruction until staff members have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“This virus, which has killed more than 360,000 Americans, is surging again and spreading to all corners of our Commonwealth,” said VEA President, James. J. Fedderman. “Our public schools must return to all virtual instruction until all of our staff members have been vaccinated.”

The process of vaccinating educators began earlier this week, when some health districts entered ‘Phase 1b.”

“Vaccination is a huge part of the strategy but our guidance does not make vaccination a precursor to opening if you have the proper mitigation measures in place,” Lane said.

The announcement comes as Virginia continues to see some of its highest daily case rates since the pandemic began.

Since the Virginia Department of Health started tracking data at K-12 schools, there have been 637 cases, 0 deaths and 109 outbreaks.

“Schools are safe. It’s the communities that we worry about,” Northam said. “Children are hurting right now, families are hurting right now, we hear about it every day… we all need to collectively get our children back in school.”

A recent study being promoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that transmission of COVID-19 was rare in North Carolina schools that reopened last fall and utilized face coverings, distancing and hand-washing. “Our data indicate that schools can reopen safely if they develop and adhere to specific SARS-CoV-2 prevention policies,” researchers wrote.

Vaccine eligibility expanded

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encouraged states to start vaccinating people ages 65 and up, as well as those between the ages of 16-64 with underlying medical conditions in ‘Phase 1b.’

Northam said Virginia will adopt these recommendations, representing a significant expansion in eligibility. Previously, this phase was set to include certain frontline essential workers and those 75 and older.

The entire state is expected to begin ‘Phase 1b’ by the end of the month, though more than 40 localities in at least 11 health districts started this week.

“This means about half of Virginia is now eligible to receive the vaccine. That’s a major logistical effort and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Northam said.

Dr. Danny Avula, the head of Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination program, said the state ultimately needs to administer 50,000 doses a day.

As early as next week, Avula said there could be an update on the creation of mass vaccination sites that will operate six to seven days a week and administer thousands of doses per day. He said these sites will likely be staffed by the Virginia National Guard and contracted vaccinators.

Northam also called for people to reach out to the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps to help with the mass vaccination effort.

Northam said they’re expecting additional funding from the federal government, which will help the state set up more channels to administer the vaccine.

“A better federal partnership and support will help all states get this done faster,” he said.

Coronavirus Updates

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