CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER, RICH GRISET
It’s usually the site of crafting and pilates classes, but the Bensley Recreation Center played host to an entirely different kind of event Friday morning.
Seated indoors and wearing masks, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger met with three Chesterfield School Board representatives and school system staff members for a discussion about where the school system stands in its response to the coronavirus and how federal action could assist.
Warner, a Democrat and former governor of Virginia, began the discussion speaking about the pandemic in general.
“We did not have to be here. I think we will look back and say particularly the [Trump] administration – failed so much in preparing the county, in terms of [personal protective equipment], in terms of testing,” Warner said, adding that he had introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to protect federal funding for schools; President Donald Trump has threatened to defund schools that don’t fully open for in-person instruction during the pandemic.
“The idea that somehow you’re going to lose funding because you don’t open on Secretary DeVos’ schedule just makes no sense at all,” said Warner, referencing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
With more people working and learning virtually than ever before, Warner said the pandemic had highlighted the need for high-speed broadband internet access, comparing it to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans to install electricity throughout the rural United States.
“High-speed broadband is not nice to have. It’s a necessity,” he said to an in-person roundtable that included School Board Chairwoman Debbie Bailey, Vice Chairwoman Dot Heffron and Midlothian representative Kathryn Haines, all wearing masks.
Spanberger, a Democrat who, like Warner, is running for reelection this fall, echoed the need for federal funding for broadband, saying it was a bipartisan issue. Before the pandemic, some rural areas of the country had lobbied to get broadband access to close the gap for job resources and other opportunities. Now, because so many people are working at home because of the pandemic, Spanberger said people in suburban and urban areas are discussing the need to expand access.
Deputy Superintendent Thomas Taylor agreed with the federal legislators, saying that as the school system planned to unroll an all-virtual start to the school year, the availability of having mobile hotspots was “going to be the new pencil” in terms of its importance as a piece of technology. Hotspots are technology that allow access to the internet.
On Friday, Taylor said it appeared that CCPS would begin the school year with 800 fewer students than it was anticipating, partly because many families were holding their children back a year from attending kindergarten. As some school funding is tied to student population, Taylor said this could lead to a $5 million to $8 million loss of revenue for the school system.
While saying they were grateful for the CARES Act funding they had received from the federal government, school officials said they would appreciate more flexibility in funding going forward. Though $11.7 million in CARES Act money will be spent on major maintenance of schools’ HVAC systems and enhanced filtration to improve air quality and ventilation within the school system, Bailey said they were in a “race” to use it by Dec. 31, when the period to spend the money ends.
School officials also said they were anticipating a jump in students who qualify for federally-funded free and reduced-price lunch, from 40% of its students to nearly half. Bailey also warned of the teacher shortage, saying that it had existed before the pandemic, and that many teachers had chosen to resign for health issues and other reasons this summer.
“We had a good number of teachers that were near retirement who decided under these circumstances, ‘I’m just retiring now,’” Bailey said. “There is a national teacher shortage, and that is going to become a crisis if it’s not addressed soon.”
After the meeting, Warner told reporters that Congress should have passed a new coronavirus relief package by now.
“We never should have gone on recess, because the school division needs the predictability of [knowing] what kinds of funds are going to come in [and] businesses have run out of [Paycheck Protection Program loans],” he said, adding that he hoped they would have a new relief bill in the next two weeks, but that “my fear is we’re going to come in next week and go through a political exercise because [of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky].”