February 7, 2021: Northam wants Virginia schools open for high-risk students by March 15

  
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It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and a day many might usually gather to celebrate on this unofficial national holiday. But the pandemic is still keeping this from being a normal time, and this installment of the Charlottesville Community Engagement newscast and newsletter is intended to catch us up on where we are eleven months since the first positive case was recorded in Virginia.

Today’s installment comes with support from Jim Duncan, associate broker and partner at Nest Realty, who represents buyers and sellers in the Charlottesville area, and writes the long-running realcentralva.com and realcrozetva.com blogs. For context on this market, 

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As it is Super Bowl Sunday, and there’s a bit of snow on the ground still, let’s get right to the information. Today the Virginia Department of Health reports another 2,949 cases for a total of 529,125 to date. The seven-day average for positive PCR tests is now at 10.4 percent. That’s down from 12.7 percent two weeks ago.

The Blue Ridge Health District is at a total of 11,290 cases since last March, with another 71 reported today.

 

Governor Ralph Northam held another press conference on Friday to give an update on the pandemic, including a directive that public schools in Virginia must have a plan in place to provide in-person education for the most vulnerable students by March 15. 

But first, Northam reviewed the year to date. 

"January was a hard month for COVID cases," Northam said. "We saw a record number of cases, hospitalizations, and sadly, deaths." 

There were 155,195 cases reported by the Virginia Department of Health in January, and 1,383 deaths.  

Governor Northam said the numbers are trending downward. The seven day average for new daily cases is now at 3,478, down from 4,619 on January 31. After five days of new daily cases in the 2000 to 3000 range, the numbers have begun to increase again. Northam urged caution.

"While these are all positive trends, we can not let down our guard," Northam said. "The virus as you have heard is  mutating and changing. The variant from the United Kingdom is here."

On Friday, the VDH announced the South African variant is also present in Virginia. 

"These variants make it even more urgent to get as many people vaccinated as we can as quickly and as equitably as possible," Northam said. "So now is not the time to relax."

Northam said VDH has been managing the inventory of available vaccine doses, and that the average number per day is approaching the goal of 50,000 a day. Today, the seven-day average is 37,103. Remember, Northam's comment here is now a couple of days old as this newsletter goes out. 

"We're pushing vaccines out as fast as possible," Northam said. "We've administered 86 percent of our first doses, and 67 percent of our total doses. That puts us 12th among other states, and over nine percent of our population has received the first dose of vaccine. That's ninth among states."    

On Saturday, Virginia passed the milestone of a million doses administered. That's almost double the number of positive cases since March 7, 2020. But Northam again urged caution and reminded Virginians there is still a finite number of vaccines available. 

“Everyone is feeling impatient,“ Northam said. “It’s hard to know that you are eligible for a vaccine but no doses are available yet. But that’s the situation we’re in across the country. Demand is much larger than our supply.” 

Northam said Virginia is still ramping up the infrastructure and 700 new call center employees are being trained to help people pre-register and get information. A phone number will be released as soon as it is available as well as a new online portal. Northam said people who have already registered through their health district are already in the system. 

Another new source of vaccines will soon be delivered to pharmacies. 

“This week the Biden administration announced the next phase of the federal pharmacy partnership,” Northam said. “In Virginia, CVS will be the first pharmacy in this roll-out because it has the most locations of any pharmacy in Virginia. We have worked with CVS to start with their stores that are in reach of people who are more vulnerable. Those aged 65 and up, those who are of low-income, and those from disadvantaged communities.” 

This will begin later this week at 65 locations across the Commonwealth. The doses to be distributed will be separate from the supply Virginia is already receiving.

“We’re still working with CVS and CDC on how registration for how those vaccinations will work, so please stay tuned, and be assured this is only the first phase of the  roll-out of the federal pharmacy partnership,” Northam said. 

Northam next turned to the issue of public education. He said schools around the country closed in the early days of the pandemic eleven months ago. 

“As school divisions began developing plans for the current school year, our guidance was that we want students and we wanted our teachers and staff to be safe,” Northam said. “But we encouraged in-person instruction for the students who needed it the most.”

Northam said data suggests that schools that have opened to some form of in-person instruction have not seen the same community spread as other congregate settings. 

“That tells us that it’s time to find a path forward to in-person learning,” Northam said. “In the past eleven months, our children have been champions. They have made sacrifices. They’ve endured a lot of change and uncertainty.” 

Northam is a pediatrician, and he said his colleagues have been telling him about mental health issues and substance abuse. There’s also been a decline in academic performance. 

“Last month we issued guidance to our school divisions for how to plan a safe return to in-person learning,” Northam said. “We didn’t say ‘throw open the doors, five days a week starting tomorrow.’ We said ‘here are the steps that you need to take. You can start with the students that most need that in-person instruction.’ But we also said this needs to happen and today I’m saying it needs to start by March 15.”

Northam stopped short of calling that a mandate. He also said school systems need to offer in-person summer school options to get students caught up. 

“We have prioritized vaccinating our teachers,” Northam said. “We have given school divisions the funding that they need for safety measures. In-person learning won’t look the same for every school division and it won’t look the same as school did a year ago before this pandemic began. But we need to make a start. We can do this and we must do this.”

To illustrate the issue, Northam introduced Teacher of the Year Anthony Swann of Rocky Mount Elementary School in Franklin County, who he also appointed to the state Board of Education. 

“Although some students are all virtual, they still don’t have true accountability measures in place to ensure that they are learning,” Swann said. “For instance, when my district was following a hybrid learning style, I found that when a lot of my students were home on virtual days they would not do the work.” 

Swann said in-person days have been spent playing catch-up rather than moving forward with the curriculum.  He said moving back to in-person instruction will help with students’ social lives as well. Last week, Franklin County Public Schools moved back to four-days a week for pre-K through 7th district with health measures in place.

“On the very first day with all of my students back, one of my students walked in the room and his words were ‘oh my God, I get to see my friends!” Swann exclaimed. 

Northam said the directive to get systems back to in-person does not require every student to return to school on March 15. 

“Not everybody is going to be ready to run through the front door and say ‘we’re back to school as normal’”, Northam said. “There will be individuals that don’t feel comfortable. There will be families. I have a family, a lot of families that I have taken care of that may have individuals at home, maybe a parent or a grandparent, that has health care issues. They may not have had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet so those families are not going to feel comfortable sending their children to school. I get that. But I’m just hopeful that if we give factual information, in time people will realize that this is safe and it’s really in the best interest of our children.” 

Watch the full press conference for more information.


Just as Northam’s press conference was beginning, officials at UVA Health held their own briefing. Chief Executive Officer Wendy Horton said the health system is now able to administer a thousand doses a day at the two sites from which it is offering doses. 

“So this week we have a combination of both of our sites, here on Ground where we are doing principally second doses and then also on select days our community site at Seminole Square,” Horton said.

UVA Health is collaborating with the Blue Ridge Health District on the effort, including the K-Mart site. 

In-person instruction resumed at the University of Virginia last Monday. Dr. Costi Sifri said UVA is applying the same mitigation strategy as during the fall semester. 

“Testing has been ramped up so now everybody, all students, not only those that are in dorms but also those that are in off-Grounds or in other housing will be tested on a weekly basis,” Sifri said. 

Dr. Sifri is an expert in infectious diseases and he said he sees no threat from in-person instruction as long as people wear masks and keep their distance. He was also asked if the new COVID variants pose any additional risk to community spread at this time, especially as more school systems return. 

“We’ve heard some preliminary information that it may be more transmissible or be higher in school age children and younger people,” Dr. Sifri said. “However, that’s also coupled with the fact that there is some shifting epidemiology in terms of where transmission would be seen in general in the U.K.”

Dr. Sifri said the situation will continue to be monitored. 

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