Send Kids Back to School, Northam Urges

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Better late than never. Citing the increased risk of depression and “irreparable learning loss” from current policies, Governor Ralph Northam said in his Friday press conference that every public school in Virginia should make in-person instruction available as an option by next month. He also urged school districts to offer summer classes to kids who want to take them.

“My fellow pediatricians say they’re seeing an increase in behavioral problems, mental health issues and even increases in substance abuse among their young patients,” said Northam. “They’re writing more prescriptions, such as anti-depressants and stimulants. And that’s just not a good direction for us to keep going. And we’re also seeing a decline in academic performance.”

It’s good to see Northam acknowledging these realities, which Bacon’s Rebellion columnists have been highlighting for months now. As the COVID-19 epidemic left Virginia’s public schools in tatters, Northam’s Department of Education and many school districts busied themselves with implementing Critical Race Theory to combat racial “inequities.” Ironically, the hardships and educational regression caused by schools’ shift to distance learning are most pronounced in minority communities.

Of course, it’s easy for Bacon’s Rebellion columnists to stress the obvious. We, unlike Northam, are not beholden to the teachers’ lobbies. According to the Associated Press, the Virginia Education Association pushed back against setting “an arbitrary date” and called for teachers and staffs to be prioritized for vaccines. Public employee unions, including teachers, are a bedrock constituency of Virginia’s Democratic Party.

Given the political box Northam is in, Virginians should be grateful for any sign of reality-based thinking.

In a letter to superintendents and school boards, Northam noted that 40 school divisions currently offer no in-person options, preventing 500,000 students from entering the classroom. “This needs to change, even if the decision is difficult.” 

To prevent “irreparable learning loss and psychological damage,” Northam said he expected every school division to make in-person learning options available by March 15, 2021. They may prioritize students who need in-person learning the most — those with disabilities, children from preschool through third grade, and English language learners — but school systems “must begin planning now for the eventual safe return of all students for in-person learning.”

Northam also said he “strongly encourage[s]” local school leaders to open up additional learning opportunities, such as “extensive summer classes, remediation, additional instructional time, or even year-round schooling,” adding, “You have access to federal funds to pay for this.”