RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, KENYA HUNTER
On a visit to Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was excited to hear the sound of high schoolers playing drums, tubas and French horns.
As he watched Henrico students ease back into extracurricular activities lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, like band, chorus and other activities, Cardona said he felt hope.
Cardona traveled to Henrico on Wednesday with the same message he’s spread across the country: Schools should be reopening and they need to stay open.
“This is a sign of recovery,” he told the school band, flanked by Gov. Ralph Northam and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, ahead of a roundtable discussion with Henrico students and educators.
Northam last week mandated that all students and staff in Virginia schools wear masks after initially leaving the decision to local school boards. While Virginia’s requirements have shifted alongside fluctuating guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cardona touted Virginia as a leader. He previously lambasted the governors of Texas and Florida for banning mask mandates.
The New York Times on Wednesday reported that President Joe Biden had directed the Department of Education to intervene in states that have barred local school districts from mandating masks.
Cardona has said he supports extending those mandates to include vaccinations, according to Politico. On Wednesday he said that requiring staff to take the shots should be up to local leaders.
“Local communities are best equipped to make decisions for their community,” he told reporters. “When I was commissioner of education [while] reopening schools, we relied on leadership at the local level, the way it should be to do what’s best for the community.”
Henrico schools at first prioritized personal choice over federal health and safety guidance on masks, later reversing course within hours of Northam’s mandate. The county has not opted to require its teachers to be fully vaccinated, unlike Richmond, which has set a deadline of Oct. 1.
Heading into their third academic year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, students on Wednesday spoke about their mental health needs and which aspects of virtual school they wanted to take with them.
Samantha Giles, an 11th-grader at Glen Allen, told elected officials that she enjoyed Henrico’s “Wellness Wednesdays,” where students who were attending school in Henrico’s buildings four days a week could either catch up on their school work, take a day off or have meaningful wellness engagement, and that virtual school taught her to prioritize her mental health over being perfect on her grades. She also said the shorter days and flexibility of virtual school were helpful.
“I think it was really beneficial,” Giles said of the flexibility of virtual school. “I think that mental health really needs to be taken very seriously, especially for people who are still teenagers, who are very impressionable.”
Northam noted that money from the federal American Rescue Plan can be used for counseling staff, as he considers that part of a safe reopening.
“We have invested a significant amount more money for counselors in our schools,” Northam told reporters, while also emphasizing a need for students to be inside classrooms. “But to have that access where [students] are able to talk to other students, peer to peer, it’s so, so important.”
While state and federal officials push for schools to reopen, it’s understood that the process won’t happen without interruptions — and it hasn’t. Virginia school districts and summer camps have seen dozens of COVID-19 cases spread accompanied by hundreds of quarantines.
As of Wednesday, Hopewell City Public Schools, the first school district in the state to reopen under a new state law requiring schools to have full-time in-person learning, had seen 77 positive COVID-19 cases in its first few weeks, most of which were contracted outside of schools. Richmond and Henrico public schools both saw more than 100 quarantines surrounded by positive COVID-19 cases stemming from their summer programs.
The Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in South Richmond quarantined its entire fourth-grade class because of four positive COVID-19 cases. Those cases continue to increase, according to a daily newsletter from Superintendent Jason Kamras.
Regardless, Cardona emphasized that much was at stake if schools failed to reopen, including the social and emotional health of students.
“When I visit schools, and I see what I saw here today, I’m reminded of what’s at stake, and what’s possible when we work together, when we follow the mitigation strategies, when we work together as a community to serve our students,” he said.