Capital News Service

Poll of Virginia voters favors Biden; shows mixed support for mail-in voting

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A poll released this week by the Virginia Commonwealth University L. Douglas Wilder School of Government shows presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner leading by double-digit margins in the commonwealth. 

The Richmond-based university conducted a telephone poll of just over 800 adults from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7. 

The results show Democratic nominee Biden ahead of President Donald Trump by 14 percentage points (53% to 39%). Warner, a Democrat who has represented Virginia in Congress for more than a decade, is ahead of his Republican challenger Daniel Gade by 17 percentage points (55% to 38%). The poll had a margin of error of 5.17 percentage points for all adults sampled and 6.22 percentage points for likely voters.

Biden is leading in the Northern, South Central and Tidewater regions of the state, while Trump leads in Western and Northwestern Virginia. 

Stephen Farnsworth, director at the Fredericksburg-based University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said that Trump’s message resonates with rural voters in the western part of the state.

“His focus on the message of Christian conservatives resonates well in rural areas,” Farnsworth said. “Trump has appointed politically conservative judges, and Christians have been well served by him.”

Farnsworth said that Trump tends to lose in suburban areas of Virginia such as Northern Virginia, where voters tend to be socially progressive but fiscally conservative.

The poll also provided insight into the demographics of Biden voters. 

“Something that was interesting was the strength of women as an indicator of support for Biden,” said Farrah Stone, who directed the VCU poll.

Women were more likely to support Biden over Trump by 22 percentage points (58% to 36%). Men preferred Biden over Trump by five percentage points (47% to 42%). In July, a Wilder School poll found that men were more likely to say they would vote for Trump.

The poll also shows Biden’s nomination of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate does not significantly affect his support among women or minorities. 

“If you’re looking at Kamala Harris, there aren’t significant differences between whites and minorities, or men and women,” Stone said. “What was significant was whether you were a Democrat or Republican.” 

Farnsworth said that vice presidential candidates often don’t change people’s votes, but they can help a candidate by increasing turnout among people who support the candidate but wouldn’t otherwise vote.

“If Biden’s pick of Harris ramps up turnout among African American voters, then that was a smart decision by Biden,” Farnsworth said. “This election is largely frozen in place; there aren’t many voters who are undecided.”

Hillary Clinton secured a Democratic victory in the commonwealth during the last presidential race, beating Trump by over 212,000 votes. The 2016 turnout of registered voters was higher than in 2012, but lower than 2008, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. 

The poll also asked voters about an issue that has recently come to the forefront of election news: the reliability of mail-in voting. 

Virginians are split on whether mail-in voting is trustworthy. When combined, 50% of respondents are “somewhat or very confident” that mail-in votes will be accurately cast and counted, while a combined 48% are not too or not at all confident about the process. Trust in mail-in voting is affected by party affiliation, with a majority of Republicans finding it untrustworthy, according to the VCU poll. 

“The differences are significant across party lines, which line up with voting and support for Trump,” Stone said. 

Sixty-seven percent of Republicans said they were “not at all” or “not too” confident in the accuracy of mail-in ballots. 

“Trump has tried to increase public doubts about mail-in voting,” Farnsworth said. “No previous candidates have emphasized mail-in voting this much, but it’s never been this significant before.”

Virginia bill seeks to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

By Aliviah Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education. 

The bill allows eligible schools to opt out of the program if participating is not financially possible.
Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We're just seeing a lot of need out there and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula. 

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools who have more than 62.5% students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement. 

“If HB 5113 is law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said. 

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Virginia female lawyers, lawmakers remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is being mourned by the country, and in Virginia, female lawyers and legislators are reflecting on her legacy. Some called her a role model, others called her a trailblazer, but they all admired the impact she left.

Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Alison McKee, president of the Virginia Bar Association, said Ginsburg was one of the most empowering women in the law profession. The VBA is a membership organization of state attorneys who promote legislative changes.

“She was an extraordinary force in attempts to overcome gender inequality,” McKee said. “Overall, to borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, she leaned in for all women in our profession and helped to close the gap on gender inequality.”

Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality changed a Virginia college’s admissions process in the 1990s. She wrote the majority opinion in the 1996 case that allowed women to attend the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. VMI was the last male-only college in the United States until the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that since a 1971 ruling, the Court “has repeatedly recognized” laws incompatible with the equal protection principle and that denied women access “simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”

Ginsburg was also a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that seeks to guarantee equal rights for all regardless of sex.The ERA first passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. In January, Virginia became the final state needed to ratify the amendment, though the 1982 deadline has passed. A congressional bill to eliminate the ratification deadline passed the House in February and is sitting in a Senate committee. Over the years Ginsburg has still vocalized support for the ERA, though in February she saidshe would like “it to start over.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, was a co-patron of the ERA in Virginia.

“I think we’re carrying on her work, carrying on her legacy to make life, liberty and justice for all include all and include women equally,” McClellan said. “We carried on her work with that, very much an inspiration there too.”

Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, who was a co-patron on the ERA in the House of Delegates, called Ginsburg “our firewall to protect civil rights, voting rights and everything that we fight for” in a statement Friday night.

“My life’s work for women’s equal justice, including championing the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia House of Delegates, was inspired by Justice Ginsburg’s work,” Ayala wrote. “Her determined spirit gave me the motivation to fight everyday for what is right, knowing that we would make our Commonwealth and our country a better place.”

Ginsburg was a pioneer for women in the law profession, becoming the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 after Sandra Day O’Connor.

Margaret Hardy, president of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, said seeing someone that looked like her in the law profession is “critically important,” and that’s why diversity is important—so everyone has a role model.

“I think that just seeing a woman because in her case, in many instances, she was the woman, not just one of many,” Hardy said. “I think just for anyone seeing someone in a profession that you’re entering who looks just like you is an inspiration.”

Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani, former president of the Virginia Bar Association, called Ginsburg a role model for all lawyers, not just women.

“For her to do what she did, she also showed not only women that it could be done, but men,” Trigiani said. “She showed everyone that it could be done.”

McClellan equated Ginsburg to civil rights lawyer and former Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“I think she for women’s rights was what Thurgood Marshall was for civil rights,” McClellan said. “I as a woman lawyer, as a woman lawmaker, stand on her shoulders.”

Efforts falter to require schools to provide in-person options

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- An effort to require Virginia school districts provide in-person classes to students with poor internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely dead. 

House Bill 5009, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would require public schools to offer in-person classes to elementary, middle and high school students who have substandard internet connections at home. 

The bill was referred in August to the House Committee on Education during the Virginia General Assembly special session, but the legislation still hasn’t been addressed as the legislature nears crossover day—when each chamber must act on bills for them to advance.

“Anything still left in committee, will essentially die. So it doesn’t look like this bill will progress,” Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, who co-sponsored the bill, said in an email. 

Mark Cole’s bill would have required schools to provide in-person instruction to individuals who can’t access an internet speed of more than 10 megabits per second download and one Mbps upload. 

“This is an equity issue,” Mark Cole wrote in an email earlier this month. “Some children do not have access to the internet or internet of sufficient capacity to be able participants in online instruction, primarily rural and poor children.”

More than 1 million public school students were slated to start school in an online-only format, according to data posted in August by the Virginia Public Access Project. That includes Fairfax County, home to almost 189,000 students. More than 269,000 children were set to start school in a hybrid format that offers in-person and online instruction. Many of those students are located in rural areas. Hanover County, which enrolls more than 17,500 students, is the largest school district offering a blended format, according to VPAP. 

Russell County in Southwest Virginia is among the schools offering an in-person and online learning format. The school has set up an internet hotspot on school grounds to help students download material for class, and zip drives to store what they download, according to Janice Barton, a teacher at the school. High schools in the surrounding area have also done the same, Barton said. 

Even though schools are offering ways to access the internet, they’re still not offering high-speed access, Mark Cole said.

“This still puts children without high speed internet at a disadvantage over those that can participate in the comfort of their homes,” he said. “Children have to be driven to a hotspot, often a school parking lot, where they try to receive instruction while sitting in their car.”

Joshua Cole believes children should have an equal opportunity to learn without having to worry about attending online classes.

“If you don’t have internet, if you don’t have high speed internet, if your speeds are low, we want to make sure that your student is not left out,” he said. 

Stafford County gives some students an opportunity to come to school if they need to, said Joshua Cole, who is one of the county’s representatives in the House. The lawmaker said only some students are attending in-person classes in Stafford County, primarily students with disabilities or those without reliable internet access.

“It's not a bunch of students coming in,” he said.

Fredericksburg City Public Schools partnered with business owners in the area who are helping fund internet hotspots for students to access from their homes, according to Joshua Cole.

Many schools that are offering in-person instruction have created spaces to accommodate students and follow social distancing guidelines.

“We have signs in the hallways, in our classrooms. We have it set up 6 feet apart,” Barton said. “We have cleaning supplies, every teacher has that.”

Russell County Public Schools also provide students and teachers with masks, Barton said. 

Senate Bill 5114, sponsored by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville, had similar wording to Mark Cole’s bill, but it was passed by indefinitely, which means the bill is dead unless the committee takes additional action.

House, Senate committees advance bills for expungement of criminal records

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia House and Senate committees have advanced legislation that would remove certain criminal records in a criminal justice reform effort that allows people to petition for expungement of convictions, not just charges. 

Senate Bill 5043, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and House Bill 5146, sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, would expand the current expungement process. Police and court records are currently only expunged if an individual is acquitted, a case is dismissed or abandoned. 

Deeds said the bill expands the cases available for expungement and will create an easier process for individuals seeking expungement. 

Deeds’ bill heads to the Senate floor after moving through two Senate committees. The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee gave the bill the green light Thursday with a 16-0 vote. Herring’s bill was approved by the House Appropriations Committee with a 13-9 vote.

Deed’s bill would allow expungement of records for cases such as misdemeanor marijuana possession, underage alcohol or tobacco possession, and using a fake ID to buy alcohol. The bill allows expungement five years past conviction and once court fines have been paid. The bill excludes violent felonies and drug-related offenses such as marijuana possession over an ounce, distribution of drugs to a person under 18, and the manufacturing, possession or distribution of controlled substances like heroin and methamphetamine.

“Simple marijuana possession is no longer a crime in Virginia, so you ought to be able to expunge those convictions,” Deeds said.

Herring’s bill creates an automatic system that after eight years expunges certain charges that have been abandoned or dismissed, as well as certain convictions, including some felonies if there are no subsequent convictions.

The current process includes filing a petition, being fingerprinted, paying a filing fee and possibly attending a court hearing, according to Colin Drabert, deputy director of the Virginia State Crime Commission, who spoke during a commission hearing Monday. Virginia is one of nine states that do not allow the expungement of a misdemeanor and one of 14 states that do not allow the expungement of a felony, he said. 

Virginia State Police receive approximately 4,000 expungement orders for non-convictions per year for the past three years, Drabert said. If Herring’s bill passes,  cases that are acquitted, dismissed or a nolle prosequi entered, will be automatically expunged by the court handling the case -- excluding traffic violations. For convictions, Herring’s bill outlines a new, at least monthly process that has state police provide to the courts an electronic list of qualifying offenses that meet automatic expungement. Once a judge approves the names and offenses, the records are expunged.

“There is a stigma attached when someone has a mark on their record from difficulty in finding employment,” Herring said during a House Courts of Justice hearing. Criminal records also can impact an individual’s ability to attend college, receive financial aid or find housing, she said. 

Andy Elders, policy director at Justice Forward Virginia and chief public defender for Fairfax County, said expungement helps people re-establish themselves in society. 

“Many people who have criminal convictions on their records, have them as a result of over-policing of communities of color,” Elders said. 

Dana G. Schrad, executive director of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the proposed changes won’t allow certain employers to access expungement records, including police chiefs who conduct thorough background checks before hiring individuals.

“If these expungement proposals are enacted into law, law enforcement hiring processes will be further compromised,” Schrad said.

Deed’s bill would not require disclosure of expungement. Herring’s  bill will prohibit automatically expunged records from being seen unless applying for law enforcement and certain federal and state positions.

Schrad also said the law change could impact background checks for teachers, child care providers, mental health and social workers.

Though the governor promised sweeping criminal justice reform in January, the newly-elected Democratic majority failed during the regular session to pass bills such as reinstating parole and expungement of records. Deeds’ bill, if passed, would take effect January 2022. Herring’s bill would be phased in and require multiple agencies to sign off on the implementations.

Virginians debate whether COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Though the federal government is asking states to prepare for the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine within months, some Virginians differ on whether the vaccine should be mandatory when it becomes available.

Virginia Freedom Keepers, a nonprofit that advocates for medical freedom, gathered in Richmond this week for a “March Against Mandates,” in protest of the statewide mask mandate, as well as a potential vaccine mandate, in response to COVID-19. The Virginia General Assembly is currently holding a special session to discuss the budget, along with COVID-19 and criminal justice reform measures.

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said in a recent interview with ABC-8 (WRIC-TV), that if he is still Virginia’s acting Health Commissioner when a COVID-19 vaccine is made available, he will make immunization mandatory.

“It is killing people now, we don’t have a treatment for it and if we develop a vaccine that can prevent it from spreading in the community we will save hundreds and hundreds of lives,” Oliver said.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office did not back up the health commissioner’s statement. Northam’s administration told WRIC it had “taken no official policy position on whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine for adults should be mandatory.” Northam’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Capital News Service. According to the Virginia Department of Health press office, when Dr. Oliver spoke in support of a mandate for a future COVID-19 vaccine, he was “sharing his personal opinion as a physician.”

Virginia law currently gives the health commissioner the authority to issue a mandate for a vaccine in the case of an epidemic. The law allows doctors to exempt people from vaccination if their health would be negatively affected. A. E. Dick Howard, a professor of international law at the University of Virginia, says this statute must be read in light of the state constitution, which states the commonwealth’s executive power is vested in the governor, meaning it’s unlikely that Oliver would have the final word.

“This provision is meant to focus both authority and responsibility of the governor. It therefore argues against the splintering of authority in the executive branch,” Howard said in an email.

 The current language exempts those with a note written by a doctor, but two Virginia delegates wanted to exempt people who object to vaccination on religious grounds.

HB 5070, introduced by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and HB 5016, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, have similar wording. The two bills, which were tabled during the special session, would have eliminated the health commissioner’s authority to enforce a vaccination mandate for people who object due to religious beliefs. 

“I am concerned that there is such a rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, that normal safety and effectiveness testing may be bypassed, leading to the distribution of a vaccine that has not been fully tested,” Cole said in an email. “Who knows what the health consequences of short-circuiting the process may be?”

LaRock did not respond to a request for comment about his bill. Cole said constituents concerned about a mandatory vaccine asked him to introduce HB 5016, and that “religious beliefs” in the bill incorporates any belief system, including secularism. 

“I am old enough to remember the Swine Flu scare more than 40 years ago. President Ford started a program of public vaccinations to protect people from it,” Cole said. “I received the vaccine when I was in college.” 

In 1976, a swine flu outbreak in New Jersey led President Gerald Ford to issue a nationwide immunization program, according to the Los Angeles Times. Of the 40 million Americans who received the vaccine around 500 are suspected to have contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that damages nerve cells and causes paralysis in some cases.

“No one should be forced to take a vaccine. Every vaccine has some health risks associated with it; they may be relatively minor, but they are there,” Cole said. “Vaccines that have been tested and found to be effective and safe should be offered to the public, and I am confident that most people will take advantage of it, including myself.” 

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states have the authority to regulate for the protection of the public and a community has the right to protect itself against an “epidemic of disease,” regardless of one’s political or religious objections, according to the National Constitution Center. The ruling allowed the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts to fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections. According to Howard, in the case of a mandatory vaccine, the court ruled that states may create an exemption based on religion but are not obliged to do so.

“Thus, the question of what qualifies as a religious exemption depends on how a statute is drafted and interpreted,” Howard said.

Activists Say Bill Ending Police Stops for Pot Odor Is ‘Small Step’ For Marginalized Communities

Advocates

Members of the group Marijuana Justice at a press conference to support the legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth. Photo by Emma Gauthier/CNS.

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The state Senate approved a bill Friday that would prohibit search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. Activists say this is a small step toward ending adverse enforcement against marginalized communities.

Senate Bill 5029, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed with a 21-15 vote. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the statewide legalization of marijuana, said her group is excited to see the bill move forward.

“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing Black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” Higgs Wise said.

Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia compared to white people, according to 2018 data from the ACLU. Even after marijuana was decriminalized in July, Higgs Wise said police stops initiated on the smell of marijuana continue to adversely affect minority groups.

“The odor of marijuana is something that our undocumented community is anxious about because it’s life or death and separation from their families,” Higgs Wise said.

Higgs Wise said there is still “a long way to go” before demands for full marijuana legalization are met, but right now she wants legislators to focus on ending the enforcement of remaining marijuana-related penalties.

Marijuana decriminalization legislation approved by the General Assembly earlier this year went into effect in July. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana results in a $25 civil penalty, reduced from a $500 criminal fine and 30 days in jail for having up to half an ounce.

Higgs Wise said true reform goes further; clearing records, releasing people jailed for marijuana offenses and eliminating the $25 fine. 

“All of that has to stop to meet the full demand of legalization and fully, truly decriminalizing marijuana and Black and brown bodies in the eyes of the police,” Higgs Wise said.

Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dana Schrad said the organization opposes the bill. 

“Enacting this type of legislation allows and promotes smoking of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, which is a fundamental disregard for maintaining a safe driving environment for motorists,” Schrad said in an email.

Other amendments in the bill reduce certain traffic violations from primary to secondary offenses, which Schrad said could make it difficult for officers to issue citations on the road and creates risks for other drivers.

The bill, and another in the House, reduce other traffic penalties from primary to secondary offenses, such as driving with tinted windows or without a light illuminating the vehicle’s license plate.

Claire Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU Virginia, said police have “gotten comfortable” with using the smell of marijuana as a pretext to stop and frisk.

“Occasionally, they’ll find evidence doing that of some other criminal activity, but many times they don’t,” Gastañaga said. “As a consequence, it provides an excuse for essentially over-policing people who have done nothing wrong.”

Gastañaga said the end of the overcriminalization of Black and brown people will come after legislators legalize marijuana and commit to reinvesting equitably in those communities. A resolution approved by the General Assembly earlier in the year directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study and make recommendations for how the commonwealth should legalize marijuana by 2022.

Gastañaga said SB 5029 sends a strong message to the police and the public.

“This would take [away] that pretextual tool for police stopping people on the street, or for demanding to search a vehicle,” Gastañaga said.

The bill needs approval from the House of Delegates and a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam before it can become law, which would take effect four months after the special session adjourns. 

House Bill 5058 similarly aims to end police searches based on the odor of marijuana. The bill, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, reported Wednesday from the House Courts of Justice committee by a vote of 13-7.

“A disproportionate number of people pulled over for minor traffic offenses tend to be people of color,” Hope said during the committee meeting on Wednesday. “This is a contributor to the higher incarceration rate among minorities.”

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said during Wednesday’s meeting that when people feel they are being targeted by the police, they’re less likely to report crimes or act as witnesses in prosecutions. He said ending such traffic stops is necessary to reform the criminal justice system and make communities safer. 

“Reforming our criminal justice system means bringing back legitimacy to it,” Descano said.

Bill to establish mental health alert system reports out of House committee

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill that could reshape how law enforcement responds when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis reported out of the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday by a vote of 13-9.

House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would create teams of mental health service providers, peer recovery specialists and law enforcement to help individuals in a crisis situation. Formally dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or MARCUS, alert system, the proposal is in response to ongoing demands of protesters in Richmond.

The proposed system is named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer in 2018 while unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Out of that, his family, a wealth and host of community advocates and stakeholders came together and really started developing what’s known as the MARCUS alert system, which this bill hopefully will create,” Bourne said during the virtual committee meeting.

The bill would require the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Criminal Justice Services to work together to create evidence-based training programs for the care teams so that they know how, Bourne said, “to effectively address, mitigate and de-escalate these situations.”

Bourne hopes the law will ensure that people who are experiencing mental health crises are met with the appropriate resources “and not just being locked up.”

“A mental health professional is going to absolutely take the lead in these situations,” Bourne said. “In lots of cases, the mere presence or sight of a uniform or police vehicle can further exacerbate or further amplify the mental health crisis.”

Princess Blanding, sister of Peters, commended Bourne and his team for spearheading the bill’s progress in the House. She called today’s committee meeting a partial victory, adding “it’s not done yet.”

“We’re very thankful for the work that Del. Jeff Bourne has been doing, and it’s not over,” Blanding said. “He knows he still has a lot of work ahead of him, and he’s up for it. He’s up for that fight.”

During the meeting, Blanding urged the delegates to support the bill and said her brother “absolutely deserved help, not death” on the day of his fatal shooting.

“When a person’s kidneys stop functioning properly, they receive dialysis if needed,” Blanding said. “When a person’s heart stops functioning properly, they receive bypass surgery if needed. But the brain is the only major organ that, when it stops functioning properly, we demonize, we incarcerate, and in the case of so many Black people, death is the final answer.”

Blanding has spoken at multiple demonstrations in Richmond since protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began in late May, demanding the city fully fund the alert system as well as establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Citing the personal experience of a family member, Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, expressed concern for situations when a victim is endangered by someone experiencing a mental health crisis. She said she supports Bourne’s bill “in concept” but struggles with it from a legal perspective regarding who would respond first in a situation when someone might be harmed.

Bourne said law enforcement have “an absolute, overarching duty to protect people,” and that protection of any victims would necessitate police to respond first, but the mental health team would also be there to address the crisis. Coyner ultimately voted against the bill.

Republican delegates expressed concern over how to fund a statewide system, which will be determined when the bill is before the House Appropriations Committee.

“I’d like for us to think about what we could do to spend this money within our police departments to have somebody there with them that has the ability to be plainclothed and to do this, versus trying to organize different people from different parts,” said Del. Matt Fariss, R-Rustburg.

Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, spoke during the committee meeting. He said although his organization was not involved with putting forward the legislation, he “fully supports” the goals listed in the bill.

“I think this is an incredible, significant step forward in really addressing the mental health needs of our community,” Cruser said.

Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, also seeks to establish a similar alert system. It has been rereferred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee.

VCU details August return with in-person, online courses, free COVID-19 testing

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Commonwealth University's fall semester classes are slated to begin Aug. 17 with a mixture of in-person, hybrid and online courses, per a release from President Michael Rao on Tuesday.

Students received updated information to their VCU emails on Wednesday morning regarding courses and resources available to “navigate any changes.” 

“We recognize that not every member of our community has equal access to the technology, support, and personal space that makes remote learning possible,” Rao said. “We will leave no one behind because our mission needs the vital perspectives and clear voice of all of us.”

The release stated that to ensure a safe return to campus, every member of the VCU community must adhere to safety guidelines like social distancing, wearing masks, disinfecting spaces and frequent hand-washing.

The university will provide masks, hand sanitizer and other items to help students and employees stay healthy. Before returning to campus, all students and faculty members will complete online safety protocol training and undergo daily health assessments. 

Students who plan to live on campus must test negative for COVID-19 before moving in. On-campus housing is available to students enrolled in both in-person and online classes, and online-only courses do not break a student housing contract, per VCU Residential Life and Housing. Students can cancel fall-semester housing contracts by visiting this site

The Graduate hotel at 301 W. Franklin St. is listed as a residence hall for first-year students. Honors College students can choose to stay in either the hotel or the Gladding Residence Center. The Honors College Residence Hall will hold low-acuity patients for VCU Health Systems during the academic year.

Students will receive move-in details through their VCU emails by the week of July 20. VCU will provide COVID-19 testing kits for students moving on campus. Non-residential students and employees with COVID-19 symptoms will also receive free testing. Asymptomatic students and employees will receive COVID-19 testing for an undetermined fee.

“This is, and will continue to be, a time of necessary adherence to safety measures and to supporting our classmates and colleagues. This includes continued access to mental health resources,” Rao stated. “And it includes remaining flexible and recognizing that our circumstances and plans may change, and we all may need to adapt to the changing situations around us.”

Virtual appointments and other mental health resources are available to students at the Health Promotion and Well-Being Center and University Counseling Services

Additional information from VCU on COVID-19 and fall semester can be found at together.vcu.edu/protocols.

Health Care Providers Fear Cancellation of Telehealth Coverage After Pandemic Ceases

 
 
By Rebecca Elrod
 
FAIRFAX, Va. --- Meg Fregoso, a nurse practitioner, used to see patients who previously had a lung transplant at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Now she uses telehealth to meet patients. 
 
Fregoso is one of many health care providers offering more telehealth services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, providers are concerned that they will no longer be reimbursed for these services once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. 
 
The coverage of telehealth for physical therapy services was rare before COVID-19, according to Kara Gainer, director of regulatory affairs at the Alexandria-based American Physical Therapy Association. Now, Medicare and most insurance companies are covering more telehealth services due to the coronavirus, Gainer said. 
 
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded Medicare coverage due to COVID-19, according to the organization’s website. However, the agency will reduce payments, on Jan. 1, 2021, to more than three dozen categories of health care providers, according to APTA.
 
Challenges still remain for physical therapists as many are uncertain about payment, according to a survey done by the APTA
 
Gainer works with different groups, such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, to advocate for the continuation of coverage for health care providers. 
 
“Everyone would be supportive of receiving reimbursement for telehealth services at the same rate as receiving reimbursement for in-person services,” Gainer said.  
 
Reimbursement is the payment that health insurers send to health care providers for giving a medical service, according to an article by Verywell Health, a website that provides health information.
 
In the past, Inova considered using telehealth to treat post lung transplant patients, Fregoso said. However since most insurance providers didn’t reimburse this type of service, it wasn’t commonly used. Now, Fregoso and other providers are reimbursed for telehealth visits.
 
“With everything with COVID, it became kind of critical,” Fregoso said.
 
Telehealth uses technology like  messages, phone calls and live video conference meetings to provide health care services, according to the American Telemedicine Association.
 
Jade Bender-Burnett, a physical therapist who serves patients with spinal cord and brain injuries at NeuroPT in Falls Church, used telehealth to serve patients before COVID-19 and has continued to use it. Bender-Burnett spoke about how COVID-19 made telehealth more accessible. 
 
“One of our biggest barriers to providing virtual treatment sessions has always been reimbursement,” Bender-Burnett said.

Some patients, like Kathy Lindsey, find telehealth appointments more beneficial than visiting the doctor in-person. Lindsey sees an endocrinologist in Fairfax County. She began using telehealth to see her endocrinologist because of COVID-19.

Given the option she would like to continue using telehealth services because it is convenient and efficient, Lindsey said. 

Telehealth’s more prominent role in health care will make private insurance companies and Medicare likely continue to cover these services, according to Gainer. Congress will have to act to ensure continued coverage because the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services does not have the authority to make the coverage permanent, Gainer said. 

Legislation has been introduced that would make telehealth coverage permanent for therapy providers, according to Gainer. It is likely the discussion regarding telehealth and introduction of other bills will occur in Congress in the coming months, Gainer said.

“The landscape is forever changed,” Gainer said.

Reopen Virginia Protesters Bombard Capitol With Honks

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Horns blared and flags waved from vehicle windows as hundreds of Virginians converged Wednesday on Capitol Square to protest restrictions implemented by Gov. Ralph Northam during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protesters reiterated the message of similar demonstrations taking place in state capitals across the country. The groups hope to influence governors and lawmakers to scale back strict social distancing guidelines and allow businesses and churches to reopen.

“At first we were compliant,” said protester David Decker. “Now it seems like it’s being forced upon us more and more, and we’re absolutely sick of it.”

Many protesters said they disagree that liquor stores are considered an essential business, while many smaller businesses were ordered to close.

“I am against any policy that gives liberty to a corporation over the citizens,” said Jeffery Torres. “Corporations get their interests served while the interests of citizens get ignored.”

A small group of around 20 people -- some brought the entire family -- gathered near the Capitol Square entrance. Few wore masks or observed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggested social distancing recommendation of 6 feet of space.

Virginia imposed strict social distancing guidelines in late March. Northam issued a series of executive orders closing nonessential businesses and outlining which businesses could remain open. The stay at home order was later extended until June 10. Restaurants closed dining rooms and shifted to carry-out and delivery only. Recreational and entertainment facilities were shuttered, along with beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other nonessential establishments. Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet and feed stores, electronic and hardware retailers and banks can remain open.

The Virginia Department of Health reports approximately 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the commonwealth as of Wednesday. Northam and health officials maintain that social distancing is keeping cases from skyrocketing.

Unemployment claims have had a dizzying ascent, with the Virginia Employment Commission reporting on April 16 that 410,762 claims were filed since March 21. 

The event was not without counter protesters, among them Dr. Erich Bruhn, a surgeon from Winchester. Bruhn wore a facemask and carried a sign that read, “You have no right to put us all at risk, go home.”

“I came out here today to tell the other side that the majority of people do not agree with this,” Bruhn said. “We want the economy to open up, but it is just too soon according to most scientists.”

As the interview with Bruhn was wrapping up, a female protester leaned out of her car window and shouted at Bruhn, “How long are we supposed to stay inside?”

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has announced her intent to run for governor next year, voiced support for the rally. 

“There will be a number of people at this rally, and it has been well publicized,” Chase said during a Facebook livestream. “I think it sends a great message to the governor to reopen Virginia in a smart, wise way.” 

Protesters drove around the Capitol perimeter honking their horns for three hours. The event coincided with the General Assembly reconvening to respond to Northam’s vetoes and amendments. The House of Delegates, which met under a tent on Capitol grounds, was bombarded by the ongoing ruckus. There were no incidents of violence reported, though one Capitol police officer joked he had a headache from all the noise.

‘Never really off the clock’: Bringing the Newsroom Home During COVID-19

Marc Davis, sports director at NBC12, is working remotely and has adapted to working from home and using the social distancing guidelines while doing his job.

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Marc Davis closes his laptop in his one-bedroom apartment and turns on the television. His day at work is over, but his work mind hasn’t shut off. His office for the time being, like many in America, is in the kitchen.

Davis, the sports director at NBC 12 (WWBT-TV) in Richmond, said on a normal day when he’s not at work he checks his phone periodically just to keep an eye on the developing news. Now, since he’s working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, separating work and home has become more difficult.

“The days feel longer,” Davis said. “You can’t really separate that work space from home space.”

His station started telework almost five weeks ago and Davis found ways to take his mind off work: putting the phone down across the room and playing a game of MLB The Show or spending time with his girlfriend.

“I’ve just been making sure that I get the time to myself when I’m not working,” Davis said. “Just kind of tune out work for a little bit instead of constantly looking at my phone or Twitter or something like that.”

Davis is like many other reporters in Virginia and around the nation working from home during the coronavirus outbreak. Wayne Epps Jr., the Virginia Commonwealth University sports beat writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has worked from home for the past month.

Epps said the transition has been smooth, partly because he’s used to working remotely from games.

“The fortunate thing for me and some other writers is that we did work from home or away from the office [at arenas, for example] often anyway, so we already had everything we needed to work from home,” Epps wrote in a Twitter direct message.

Epps has conducted all of his interviews over the phone or used Zoom to respect the social distancing guidelines.

Since sports ground to a halt, reporters have come up with creative stories and segments. Davis has covered sports angles in the coronavirus stories. When Home Team Grill in Richmond closed due to the pandemic, Davis used it as a way to show how the NCAA men’s basketball tournaments help drive local business.

“As a sports guy, you’ve got to be able to adjust and be flexible and show that you can do different things and different types of journalism,” Davis said.

Epps and the Richmond Times-Dispatch sports department have chronicled different sports rivalries in Virginia since there are no games occurring.

After returning to Richmond from Brooklyn, New York, where he was covering the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament, Davis jumped in to help the news department with its coronavirus coverage.

Davis hadn’t covered non-sports news in years, but he used his experience as a news photographer from his first year in the television business.

“You’re dealing with different topics, different things, people who may be a little more sensitive to the topic you’re talking about,” Davis said. “There’s a lot we do in sports that can also apply to news as well.”

Davis made news packages for two weeks, helping with the coronavirus coverage. Then, he went back to making sports packages, but tied them back to the coronavirus, including how coronavirus has impacted a local gym.

Davis follows guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control, and conducts most interviews through video conferencing applications such as Zoom or FaceTime. Davis said he wasn’t fond of virtual interviews before the COVID-19 pandemic, opting to do his interviews in person.

Now, he leaves it up to the interview subject to decide if they want to do it online or in person.

“I will do whatever makes you comfortable,” Davis said. “It’s probably going to change the ways I have when it goes back to normal, being open [to virtual interviews].”

Davis said he conducted five interviews using video conferencing in a week alone.

Davis doesn’t know when things will return to normal and he can return back to his desk, but for now he’s working to balance work and home life.

“We work in a business that you never really turn off,” Davis said. “Stories are always happening, there’s always things to keep an eye on. You might get home, but you’re never really all the way off the clock.”

Some lawmakers view minimum wage delay as lesser of two evils

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va -- Labor advocates and Virginia legislators worried the recently passed bill to increase minimum wage might die during the reconvened General Assembly session Wednesday.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s amendment deferred the start date of the original bill by four months in response to the economic blow dealt to the state from the coronavirus pandemic. The recommendation was one of many made to trim the $135 billion, two-year budget passed in the spring. Republican lawmakers wanted to reject the amendment in order to stall the passage of the bill and have the governor amend it further.

During the relocated Senate floor session held at the Science Museum of Virginia, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, argued that now is a risky time to consider raising the minimum wage given the COVID-19 crisis. He said the legislature should reject the governor’s recommendation and send the bill back for reconsideration.

“Voting ‘no’ on this amendment keeps this issue alive,” Obenshain said. “It sends it back to the governor, and the governor has one more chance to do what’s right, not just for businesses, but for workers.”

Lawmakers who oppose minimum wage increases argued that those working minimum wage jobs in Virginia are young people entering the workforce, not people trying to support families. Other legislators pointed to the essential workers now serving the public from the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, many of whom make minimum wage. 

“Quite frankly I find it hard to believe we’ve got people in here who don’t think somebody working full time in any job should earn at least $19,600 a year,” said Senate majority leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “There’s no one in here … that would work for that kind of wage. No one.”

There were impassioned pleas from several House members to accept the recommendation instead of risking the bill being vetoed, though one delegate voiced resentment at having to make the choice. Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, said the COVID-19 crisis has spotlit “one of the most glaring contradictions in our economy” -- that workers paid the least are often deemed most essential to society.

“We are saying to these people ‘you are not worth a pay raise come January,’” Carter said. “I’m not gonna fault anyone that votes ‘yes’ on this, for taking the sure thing four months later rather than taking the chance, but if that’s what we’re gonna do ... I can’t be any part of it.” Carter did not cast a vote on the amendment.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, said that some legislators’ notion that families don’t depend on minimum wage is a myth.

“I’m glad they acknowledge that there are people in Virginia who cannot live off minimum wage,” Guzman said. “Actually, what they do is they get a second job, or a third job in order to make ends meet.” Guzman immigrated to the U.S. from Peru at the age of 18 and worked three jobs to afford a one bedroom apartment.

The House of Delegates voted 49-45 to accept Northam’s amendment to their bill. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax made the tie-breaking Senate vote when its version ended in a 20-20 tie.

The identical bills, introduced by Sen. Saslaw and Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, originally would have raised the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2021. The governor’s amendment pushes the start to May 1, 2021.

The wage will then increase to $11 in 2022, $12 in 2023 and by another $1.50 in 2025 and 2026. Every subsequent year the bill is to be re-amended to adjust the minimum wage to reflect the consumer price index.

Virginia’s cost of living index is very close to the national average, but it ranks in the top four among states where the minimum wage equals the federal rate of $7.25, according to an analysis of data from the Missouri Economic Research and Development Center.

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said now is not the time for Virginia to turn its back on low wage workers.

“We have been fighting for a decade to push for people who are working hard to make ends meet, to support their families and to be able to do so with dignity,” Scholl said. “That’s what raising the minimum wage is about.”

Northam signs bill to regulate ‘Wild West’ CBD market

By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed a bill that would define hemp extract, such as CBD, as food and usher in state regulations on these products. 

Senate Bill 918, patroned by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, will help guide the budding industrial hemp industry in Virginia by regulating facility conditions and requirements for the production of hemp-derived products intended for human consumption. 

This bill also allows the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to regulate and enforce certain standards for hemp extract, including labeling requirements, identifying contaminants and batch testing.

Charlotte Wright, a hemp farmer based in Brunswick County and owner of the CBD business Hemp Queenz, said she feels encouraged by Marsden’s bill. 

“It gives validity to the CBD industry,” Wright said. “Right now, there is no testing required, no labeling, you have no idea what is in it. It’s like the Wild West.” 

However, Wright is worried about the federal law and said keeping to that level of THC makes it difficult to produce competitive CBD products. 

Hemp plants can not exceed THC levels of 0.3% or they must be destroyed, which complies with federal standards. THC is the intoxicating component in marijuana. CBD, also found in marijuana and hemp plants, does not cause a high and is used for a wide variety of treatments from anxiety to pain relief, according to a report from the World Health Organization.

The hemp plant produces significantly low THC levels and high CBD levels, according to the WHO report. Hemp, a relative of the marijuana plant, is used for a variety of things from making fibers to beauty products. CBD also has various applications; it can be used for edibles, oils and oral supplements. 

“If we go over the limit, we have wasted all of our time and money,” Wright said. “It is ridiculous to argue over seven-tenths of a percent when any hemp farmer can easily grow a crop that is under 1% total THC. You can’t easily grow a crop that is under 0.3%.”

Wright said the longer the hemp plant grows, the more CBD and THC it produces. A higher CBD percentage will make the product more valuable.

“To get those relevant CBD percentages up over 13% or 14%, you have to leave it in longer, the longer you leave the plant in the ground, that THC number creeps up,” Wright said. “After all is said and done, that seven-tenths of a percent isn’t going to impair anyone anyway.” 

Since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp has been removed from the definition of marijuana and taken out of the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp can currently be grown, processed and distributed by licensed individuals in most states. 

However, under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it is illegal to add CBD or hemp products to food or market them as a dietary supplement. 

Currently, the only pharmaceutical drug containing CBD that has been approved by the FDA is Epidiolex, which treats two rare, severe forms of epilepsy in young children. There are no over-the-counter CBD products that are approved by the FDA. 

“If the FDA does not start approving CBD products people are going to take them without regulation,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. “That’s what the bill says, we are going to treat them like they are approved by the FDA so we can start regulating them.”

Shreve said it’s important to add another viable cash crop for agribusiness in the state. 

“Right now we are losing tobacco and dairy farms in the commonwealth, so it is another opportunity for Virginia producers to diversify and grow something that would help sustain their business,” Shreve said. 

During the 2019 growing season, approximately 1,200 registered industrial hemp growers planted around 2,200 acres of hemp in Virginia, according to Erin Williams, VDACS senior policy analyst. As of April 10, there were 1,280 active industrial hemp grower registrations, 357 processor and 219 dealer registrations. 

“I think it has a strong future,” Marsden said about the hemp industry in Virginia. “We just need to regulate it and hold other states to our standards.”

Marsden said over-the-counter CBD products like those sold at gas stations or convenience stores might not have CBD in them at all and could contain harmful ingredients. 

“We can’t have inferior products coming in from other states,” Marsden said. “We are going to try to do a good job with this stuff and it is up to VDACS to make sure other states don’t ruin our market with crap.”

Three bills were signed by the governor recently regulating industrial hemp in Virginia. One of those bills, House Bill 962, introduced by Del. Daniel Marshall III, R-Danville, regulates smokable hemp products for those over 21 and allows the sale of these products in vending machines. 

The governor also approved SB 1015 which protects certain people involved with the state’s medical cannabis program expected to begin this year. SB 2 and HB 972 decriminalize possession of certain amounts of marijuana and allows for the expungement of a prior misdemeanor offense. Northam recommended changes to the decriminalization bill that would still need to be approved when lawmakers reconvene on April 22. One recommendation is to move the deadline for a legislation study back to 2021 and another proposes that a marijuana violation occurring during the operation of a commercial vehicle would be included on the driver’s Department of Motor Vehicles record.

How Va. grocery stores practice safety amid coronavirus, sales uptick

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia grocery stores have increased efforts to keep stores clean and safe while they remain open to provide essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order as coronavirus cases quickly multiplied in the commonwealth. Grocery stores, considered essential businesses without restrictions, are implementing new service measures as sales spike during the coronavirus outbreak.

 Kroger is cleaning commonly used areas multiple times an hour including cashier stations, self-checkouts, credit card terminals, conveyor belts and food service counters. Beginning April 7, Kroger will limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code's calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores and also plans to add plexiglass. 

Ellwood Thompson’s, a natural food market in Richmond, has upped cleaning practices, closed the salad, hot bar and dining room, and places wax paper throughout the store where there are shared surfaces.The store also provides customers with hand sanitizer stations through the store and no outside food containers are allowed. 

“We are sanitizing all bathrooms, door handles and every touchpoint each hour,” wrote Colin Beirne, marketing director at Ellwood Thompon’s in an email response. Food Lion announced that by the end of the week plexiglass shields at customer service, register and pharmacy counters will be installed at all locations.

Many grocery stores are attempting to prioritize those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Food Lion, Ellwood Thompson’s, Publix and all Mid-Atlantic Kroger locations have allowed customers above the age of 60 or who are immunocompromised to exclusively shop when stores are cleanest and least crowded. 

“Protecting our most vulnerable neighbors is important to us, so special hours are being reserved for this group,” said Food Lion President Meg Ham in a statement to customers. “These special shopping hours will remain in effect until further notice.”

Not all food markets are reserving certain hours for vulnerable demographics. Wegmans, a grocery store with several locations in Virginia, explained on its website that the elderly are not the only population susceptible to the virus. The company said it doesn’t believe it's a good idea to put highly susceptible people together in one location. 

“There are many wonderful people and community services in every market who can serve as a resource for those who fall in these susceptible populations,” Wegmans stated. “Any customer requiring additional assistance accessing our products or services should visit the service desk.”

Wegmans takes precautions such as markers on the floor to instruct shoppers where to stand for proper social distancing and the checkout belts are sanitized between each customer. 

Stores have modified the hours of operation to allow additional time for cleaning and restocking. Ellwood Thompson’s, Publix, and Harris Teeter now close at 8 p.m., Kroger and Wegmans close at 10 p.m. and Food Lion locations close based on regional curfews that may be implemented. 

Retail food markets are expected to gain substantial revenue from lifestyle changes related to COVID-19. Karen Short, managing director at British multinational investment bank Barclays PLC, told Winsight Grocery Business that between $61 billion and $118 billion is projected to shift from restaurants to grocery stores during the second quarter of 2020. 

Grocery retailers are adding tens of thousands of new employees nationwide. Kroger announced in late March that they hired 23,500 new workers with plans to hire an additional 20,000 in coming weeks.

Grocery store employees have been deemed as essential workers during the pandemic. As demand for their services rises and food retail revenue increases, many grocery store workers have been offered additional benefits. 

Wegmans boosted employee hourly pay rate $2 through March and April. Harris Teeter, which has several locations across Virginia, is offering employees a one-time bonus of $300 for every full-time associate along with a $2 per hour wage increase for its employees through April 21. Kroger workers will be receiving an extra $2 per hour for hours worked March 29 through April 18 in addition to $25 for groceries.

Efforts have also been taken to protect workers from contracting COVID-19. Harris Teeter has provided protective shields at counters and requires customers with reusable bags to pack their own items. At Food Lion, workers may choose to wear protective face masks. Kroger is expecting to give their employees gloves and face masks for protection by the end of the week.

Restaurants are permitted to remain open for takeout, delivery or drive-thru services. Other establishments have come up with creative ways to continue sales. Breweries are doing home delivery and some farmer's markets are accepting pre-orders for weekend pickup.

Non-essential businesses can remain open as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines of a 10 patron limit. The stay-at-home order is effective until June 10. Failing to comply is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Coronavirus fund distributes more than $1 million in grants to Central Virginia organizations

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Funds are being released from a collective, $4.2 million pool intended to help groups provide resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Twenty-five regional organizations are receiving more than $1.1 million in grants. The grantees fall under four categories: safety net clinics, food access organizations, housing and education. 

The pool of money was created through a partnership between the Community Foundation and the Emergency Management Alliance of Central Virginia, a group of professionals that aims to help local residents dealing with disasters, according to the organizations’ sites. The fund, dubbed the Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund, was activated in March with an initial gift from the Community Foundation, a Richmond-based organization that manages more than 1,000 charitable funds. 

The fund has raised more than $4.2 million to date from foundations, businesses and individuals across the region, the partners said. An advisory committee will review and distribute grants from the fund on a rolling basis. 

The fund is currently focused on providing support for those most likely to contract the virus or those whose health could be further compromised because of barriers to food access, healthcare or stable shelter. 

“We are currently targeting those on the frontline that need to pivot and adapt quickly to an ever-increasing demand for their services,” Scott Blackwell, chief community engagement officer at the Community Foundation, said in a news release

The groups came together in September 2018 to create a disaster relief fund, according to Sherrie Armstrong, president and CEO for the Community Foundation. With the fund already in place, the two groups activated the COVID-19 response in March and began raising money. 

Organizations receiving grants in the food access category include FeedMore, Neighborhood Resource Center and Sacred Heart Center. The FeedMore funding will support staffing at the organization’s community kitchen, while Sacred Heart Center’s money will provide food, baby formula, hygiene supplies and other necessities. 

Health related organizations receiving aid include Daily Planet Health Services, Jewish Family Services, Richmond Academy of Medicine and YWCA of Richmond. The grants will help with a range of causes, ranging from the production of protective face masks for essential workers to support for a COVID-19 testing site for homeless individuals.

 Richmond Public Schools’ grant will go toward the purchase of 10,000 Chromebooks for students who need them to access education while schools are closed. Armstrong predicted that the RPS funding will ensure “that everyone has access to the internet and technology with everything that’s going on.”

The United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg is providing $100,000 in matching dollars to incentivize new donations made through United Way’s website. The organization was involved in the early conversations of where a fund “might live,” according to James Taylor, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. As needs continued to grow in Central Virginia, United Way wanted to be “good partners” to help in relief efforts.

“As the response began from a fundraising standpoint, it became clear that the needs were going to continue to grow,” Tayor said. 

 There are 6,171 COVID-19 cases in Virginia as of April 14. There have been 154 deaths and 978 hospitalizations, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The relief is designed to be flexible and to complement other resources and responses at the national, state and local levels, organizers said. 

The fund is not taking formal applications, but nonprofits and public agencies can share their needs through this form, according to the Community Foundation’s site. Individuals seeking help are encouraged to call 211 or visit 211Virginia.org for a curated list of local social services.

Va. governor signs $50 per month insulin cap

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed a bill to cap the costs of prescription insulin copays at $50 per month, one of the lowest caps in the country.

House Bill 66, sponsored by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, originally aimed to cap the costs of prescription insulin copays at $30 per month. By the time the bill passed the Senate, the cap was amended to $50 per month. 

Cheers and applause roared through the chamber when the bill seemed poised to unanimously pass the House, until a lone delegate changed their vote and groans replaced the cheers. But they still had something to celebrate ––Virginia will have the country’s fourth lowest insulin cap.

“For people that have diabetes, they tend to be on anywhere from five to eight medications. So even if they have good health insurance, paying copays anywhere from $5 or $10 per prescription adds up very quickly,” said Evan Sisson, professor at the VCU School of Pharmacy and vice-chairperson of the Virginia Diabetes Council. “So to be able to cap [insulin] is a huge benefit for patients.”

 The Virginia Department of Health estimated in 2017 that 631,194 or 9% of Virginians have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. 

The bill prohibits health insurance providers from charging a copay over $50 for a one-month supply, or from allowing or requiring a pharmacy to charge any more. The bill incorporates HB 1403, which was introduced by Del. James A. Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, and shares the same wording as Carter’s bill, but the copay amount was capped at $100.

“This bill is aimed at providing relief for those folks who have health insurance but can’t afford to use it, that is a vast swath of Virginia's population,” Carter said during a Senate committee hearing. 

Insulin prices have risen so much in recent years that some diabetics have resorted to rationing their insulin or traveling to Canada where the drug is much cheaper. According to Sisson, for someone with diabetes, especially Type 2, a lack of insulin can lead to major complications, and even be a matter of life or death.

“What the body does is it kicks into looking for other sources of energy other than glucose, and it starts to produce more fat,” Sisson said. “If you have more fat floating in the bloodstream, then you end up with more hardening of the arteries of atherosclerosis. What that means is you have higher blood pressure, and higher risk of heart attack or stroke.” 

According to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, approximately 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes, with that number increasing by about 1.5 million every year.

Prior to the advent of insulin in the 1920s, someone diagnosed with diabetes was expected to die in a matter of months, with restrictive dieting extending that to as long as a couple of years. When Canadian researchers completed the development of insulin in 1922, they sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1, hoping that everyone who was affected by diabetes would be able to benefit from the life-saving drug. 

Since then, the price has constantly increased, dramatically so over the past few decades. In 2009, a 10 milliliter vial of insulin cost between $90 and $100. Today, that same vial will cost between $250 and $300, even though little about the drug has changed.

When HB 66 was sent to the governor only two other states in the U.S. had hard caps for insulin copays. The first to introduce one was Colorado in May 2019, and the second was Illinois in January, both states have their caps at $100 per month. 

In March, governors of six other states signed legislation capping the price of insulin. New Mexico, Utah and Maine set their caps lower than Virginia’s at $25, $30 and $35, respectively. West Virginia, Washington and New York will set caps at $100.

The new cost in Virginia will be reflected in insurance plans starting Jan. 1, 2021, coinciding with plans purchased during the next round of open enrollment, Carter wrote on Twitter. He added, “The fact that it had to be done this way is a reflection of how generally screwed up our healthcare system is.”

Workers urge Northam to sign minimum wage bill

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Workers and advocates are urging Gov. Ralph Northam to sign a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 at the start of next year. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 22, and lawmakers will reevaluate recently passed legislation as the state’s economy takes a blow and unemployment climbs during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Northam and state leaders anticipate the state’s economy will suffer a major hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Northam didn’t respond directly whether he is considering delaying the increase in minimum wage when asked at a recent press conference. 

“There are a number of pieces of legislation that we are looking at regarding our business environment, and I haven’t made any definite decisions, but we are talking to the patrons of those pieces of legislation,” Northam said. The governor said he will “make a decision in the best interest of Virginia and the best interest of our economy.”

Workers on the front lines of essential businesses continue to serve the public during the COVID-19 outbreak, including many workers who earn minimum wage–currently $7.25 in Virginia. 

Employees at a Virginia Kroger grocery store and Amazon distribution center recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Many essential workers have asked for an increase in pay to reflect the increased need for their services and the elevated risks they take while working. 

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, an advocacy organization, said that raising the minimum wage is necessary to allow these workers to raise their families with dignity. 

“That’s especially true now when grocery store workers, delivery drivers, home health aids and so many more are going to work for low wages and putting themselves at risk of getting sick so that we can stay home and healthy,” Scholl said in a press release. 

The group is asking Northam to sign House Bill 395 into law without amendments or delays that would water down the bill. HB 395 would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023. The minimum wage could go up to $15 by 2026, if approved by the General Assembly. 

Some essential workers also argue that they are not being provided adequate protective gear and supplies to keep them safe from the coronavirus, another reason they are pushing for guaranteed wage increase.

Lisa Harris works at Kroger in Mechanicsville and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She has been with Kroger for 13 years and said in a press conference organized by Progress Virginia that she would benefit directly from HB 395. She is urging Northam to sign the bill with no weakening amendments. 

“I find it fascinating how fast grocery store workers like me have gone from being considered unskilled labor to being recognized as essential personnel,” Harris said. 

She compared workers dealing directly with an increasingly infected public to being on the front lines like first responders and said “it would be nice to be paid accordingly.” 

Harris said Kroger is not observing the proper social distancing recommendation of 6 feet or providing workers with personal protective equipment. She said the staff is required to wipe down the self checkout scanners and screens every half hour but argues that this is impossible with the influx of customers visiting the store. Harris said the staff is given Windex to clean equipment and not a proper disinfectant. The company has given full-time workers a $300 bonus and part-time workers a $150 pay boost, but that’s not enough money, Harris said. 

“It means barely being able to support myself, it means making tough decisions about whether to pay a bill or skip a meal, it means calling on my family members to help me as I’m attempting to be a fully enfranchised 31-year old,” Harris said. 

Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger, said the grocery chain provided all hourly workers with a $2 pay increase for hours worked March 29 through April 18. McGee also stated that all Kroger stores in the Richmond area have been provided with Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants to wipe down counters and cash registers. She said employees are required to wipe down surfaces frequently and extra hand sanitizer bottles have been provided at each checkout station.

“As far as PPE, we are encouraging our associates to wear protective masks and gloves, and we’re working hard to secure these resources for our associates,” McGee stated in an email. “Supply has started to arrive for our associates, and we anticipate all locations having personal protective equipment within the next several weeks.”

Kroger said on its website that they want healthcare workers to get a hold of protective gear before they can properly distribute it to their workers. For now employees have limited access to such PPE and are encouraged to use their own.

Beginning April 7, Kroger will also start to limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code's calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores, the company announced this week.

Michael Cassidy, executive director of The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said that the coronavirus is a reminder many essential workers are also minimum wage workers. 

“These individuals are providing a vital service to us right now and they deserve more than $7.25 an hour,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said if the minimum wage increase were to go into effect in January, it would help 46,000 healthcare workers, 100,00 retail workers and over 100,000 restaurant and service industry workers. He said this would allow people to buy more and contribute to businesses and the economy as a whole. 

“That’s important because consumer spending is the foundation of our economy, it’s about 72% of Virginia’s gross domestic product,” Cassidy said. 

Del. Danica Roem said in a tweet that she is extremely disappointed to see groups advocating for bills like HB 395 to be watered down or delayed. 

“We’re $1.50/hr behind West Virginia right now,” Roem tweeted. “You don’t see an uprising of West Virginian business leaders demanding the government lower their minimum wage to match ours.” 

Cassidy said history shows that increasing the minimum wage during a recession has been successful in bringing the economy back.
HB 395 is currently pending signature by Northam with a deadline of April 11.

Northam delays upcoming elections; others push for November alternatives

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va -- Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that he is delaying the June congressional primaries by two weeks and is calling on the General Assembly to approve moving May elections to November.

“We have wrestled with our options and none of them are ideal or perfect,” Northam said. “Voting is a fundamental right, but no one should have to choose between protecting their health or casting a ballot.”

State legislators will have to sign off on the governor’s proposal to move the May local and special elections. Northam proposed that these races appear on the November ballot. All absentee ballots already cast would be discarded, the governor said. Additionally, those officials whose terms expire as of June 30 will continue in office until their successors have been elected in November.

The primary for Congressional races and a few local races has been postponed to June 23.

“As other states have shown, conducting an election in the middle of this global pandemic would bring unprecedented challenges and potential risk to voters and those who work at polling places across the Commonwealth,” Northam said.

Groups and state leaders have been calling for proactive measures such as mail-in voting for the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election, fearing ongoing impact from the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia Democrats recently joined other Democratic groups nationwide calling on federal lawmakers to create voting alternatives for the presidential election due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

The groups are asking for provisions such as free or prepaid postage, allowing ballots postmarked by election day to count, in addition to extending early voting periods for in-person voting. Two possible alternatives to replace voting in person are mail-in and absentee ballots, according to Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg that specializes in media and elections.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, supports the idea of a universal mail-in ballot, regardless of the current pandemic. An MIT research study found that universal vote by mail cuts costs, increases turnout and improves election reliability. However, the success of these programs depends on transparency, accuracy and accessibility. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah have introduced mail-in only ballots.

“We need to take up this essential task of giving all Virginians an opportunity to participate in a safe and inclusive election,” Carroll Foy said in an email.The delegate recently filed paperwork to run for governor in 2021, according to the Virginia Mercury. 

Carroll Foy said the mail-in method is preferable to absentee voting because individuals need to opt in to register for absentee voting. Mail-in voting allows any registered voter to mail in their ballot without opting in, Carroll-Foy said. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states using the mail-in method mail ballots to every registered voter, while absentee ballots are first requested and voters must qualify to receive the ballot. 

“We want to make sure that everyone feels safe and secure in these uncertain times, and that their constitutional rights are protected and easily accessed -- mail in ballots are the best to achieve both,” Carroll Foy said. 

Farnsworth believes it’s unlikely that the November U.S. presidential election will be delayed, but said voters may see changes at the polls.

“Even for states that don't make the switch away from largely in-person voting, you can expect much greater opportunities for no-excuse-required early and absentee voting,” Farnsworth said. 

During the General Assembly 2020 session, legislators passed House Bill 1 to allow a no excuse requirement to vote absentee. This removes prior requirements such as work, illness or travel to justify requesting an absentee ballot. 

Farnsworth said a mail-in only option is the most likely alternative over traditional in-person voting if the nation is still on lockdown in November. 

According to Anna Scholl, executive director of advocacy group Progress Virginia, postponing elections is the right move for Virginia voters.

“Postponing elections is a serious decision but it is the right move for our communities,” Scholl stated in a news release. “We strongly encourage the General Assembly to ratify this plan when they meet on April 22nd.”

The deadline to have an absentee ballot mailed for the June primary is June 2. Absentee ballot request forms can be found at www.vote.virginia.gov.

Gun Group Asks Northam to Reopen Indoor Ranges as March Gun Sales Increase

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia gun owners are calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to remove indoor gun ranges from the list of non-essential businesses closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Meanwhile, this comes as background checks for firearm purchases saw double digit growth from February to March. The Second Amendment advocacy group Virginia Citizens Defense League said that indoor ranges aren’t places of entertainment, rather places where people can practice lifesaving skills. 

The group has rallied its supporters to urge Northam to reconsider the closing of indoor ranges, which are part of two recent executive orders requiring Virginians to stay at home and non-essential businesses to close until June 10.

 Under Northam’s orders gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited. Indoor gun ranges, along with many other businesses deemed recreational and entertainment facilities, have been required to close. That includes racetracks and historic horse racing facilities, bowling alleys, arcades and movie theaters. Beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other non-essential establishments that can’t keep people more than 6 feet apart must close. 

Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet stores, electronic and hardware retailers, and banks can remain open.

“The governor’s view of ranges is that they are for entertainment, or that has been what he has classified them as,” VCDL President Philip Van Cleave said. “Ranges are where people get to practice lifesaving skills, and there are so many new gun owners now that have realized that their safety is in their own hands.”

Gun sales have spiked in some areas around the nation since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to NPR. In Virginia, gun stores conducted 83,675 background checks in March, a 20% increase over January and February data which were 68,420 and 67,257 respectively, according to FBI firearm background check statistics. Background checks are required for a purchase, but multiple firearms could be purchased for each background check.

Though Northam’s order does not designate firearm and ammunition retailers as essential retail businesses, they can remain open but must abide by the social distancing order and not allow more than 10 customers at a time.

The VCDL has sought legal counsel to push back against Northam’s executive order, deeming indoor gun ranges as non-essential businesses, Van Cleave said. William J. Olson, the organization’s lawyer, sent two letters to Northam. The first asked for the indoor ranges to be removed from the list of non-essential businesses, and the second notified the governor of the Department of Homeland Security guidance to list jobs at gun manufacturers, retailers and U.S. gun ranges as being part of the “essential critical infrastructure workforce.” 

Citing the silence from the governor’s office and the issuing of Executive Order 55, which extended the timeline businesses must remain closed, Van Cleave said the VCDL Board of Directors voted to advance a lawsuit to put a stay on the closure of indoor gun ranges.

“The Board of Directors voted, and we are going to move forward with the lawsuit, but I can’t give any further details at this time,” Van Cleave said Wednesday.

Colonial Shooting Academy in Henrico County closed its indoor shooting ranges to comply with Northam’s order. Peyton Galanti, Colonial Shooting Academy’s marketing department manager, said the decision to close should be left up to businesses and not the governor.

“A lot of people don’t know that indoor gun ranges are under a lot of scrutiny with a lot of different government departments anyways,” Galanti said. 

Galanti explained that indoor ranges like Colonial Shooting Academy have to meet guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to include proper ventilation of indoor ranges due to lead particulates that are released when a gun is fired.

 “The practices that we have on a daily basis are so much stronger than other businesses in terms of our cleaning standards on every level that we have to comply with.”

Van Cleave said that indoor ranges “can easily limit the number of people allowed” by putting an empty lane in between shooters to keep people several feet apart and comply with the governor’s order.

There are approximately 70 shooting ranges in Virginia, according to the National Rifle Association data. Northam’s order doesn’t include outdoor shooting ranges, though a majority of outdoor ranges require paid memberships. 

The VCDL also implored the governor to veto House Bill 264, which would require Virginians to take an in-person class and demonstrate competence with a firearm to obtain a concealed handgun permit, ending the current option to take an online class in order to qualify for such a permit.

“Applicants would be socially isolated, while still getting training. That would be impossible if HB 264 becomes law,” VDCL said in a newsletter.

 If signed by Northam, HB 264 would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

From Fashion Design to Chemistry, Classes Adapt to Distance Learning

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Students and teachers at all levels of education are transitioning from classroom to computer as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to distance learning, as students and instructors have discovered. 

“I think we’re all really frustrated,” said Jordyn Wade, a fashion design major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “But we know that our professors are doing what they can in a really unprecedented situation.” 

Wade said that she and her classmates are now meeting remotely through Zoom, a video conferencing platform. Zoom allows students to meet virtually during a time when people can’t meet physically, but distance learning poses challenges for courses that require more than a lecture, like art classes and lab components of science classes.

Students like Wade worked mostly with industrial grade equipment.

“We kind of rely heavily on the school for supplies like sewing machines and the industrial equipment that can cost thousands of dollars,” Wade said. “Now we just stare at each other and they ask us,‘What can you guys do? Can you hand sew an entire jacket before the end of the month?’”

Wade said that one of the most frustrating aspects of distance learning is not being able to receive direct feedback from professors.

“We can’t ask our professors what’s wrong with the garment that we’re making, we can just send them pictures and hope they can figure it out from afar,” Wade said. 

Chloe Pallak, a student in VCU’s art program said that many of her projects are being graded on whether or not they are complete. 

“To get a grade for an assignment, you just have to do it,” Pallak said. “It really takes away the motivation of wanting to make art and not just complete the assignment.” 

Courses that include lab components, such as classes in environmental science, also face challenges as classes move online. Griffin Erney, an environmental studies major at VCU, said that distance learning prevents students from accessing lab materials that are typically provided in the classroom. 

“Before the class was online we would just do different activities and be provided with the materials,” Erney said. “Having labs online is more challenging, on top of all the work that we already have.” 

On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an order that closed down all K-12 schools in the state for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. 

Davide D’Urbino, a chemistry and organic chemistry teacher at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, said he plans on using computer applications to supplement labs that cannot be completed in the classroom. He said the school division requested that teachers hold off on introducing new learning material.

“The expectation was that you could teach new stuff, but then you have to go back in class and reteach it,” D’Urbino said.

D’Urbino said teachers aren’t allowed to teach new material online because some students may not have internet access. He said he understands why the school division has placed these restrictions but said it “feels weird.” 

Distance learning has also presented challenges to teachers trying to adapt to lecturing online. 

“Some people say teaching is 75 percent theater, you just go out there and do improv. You can’t really do that online,” D’Urbino said. “It’s very difficult to intervene and correct course if you realize something isn’t quite working out.”

Teachers have also scrambled for ways to continue instruction for students that lack access to the internet.

Janice Barton, a 5th grade science teacher at Honaker Elementary School in Russell County, said that about half of the 60 students she teaches have access to the internet. She said the school is using Google Classroom, a web platform that allows teachers to share files with students through the internet. For students without internet access, teachers create physical packets of learning content.

“We’re working as grade levels, we’re going in and working together to put the packets together,” Barton said. “We have pickup days and drop-off days, and that’s how we are working and dealing with this right now.”

Barton said the school uses phone calls, emails, and the app Remind, which allows teachers to send messages to students to keep in contact with parents and students. 

While local school divisions are tasked with making decisions on how to pursue distance learning, the Virginia Department of Education issued guidance to help divisions continue instruction. 

VDOE’s guidance to local school divisions includes offering instruction during the summer of 2020, extending the school term or adjusting the next, and adding learning modules to extended school calendars. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane issued guidance regarding eight high school senior graduation requirements and will be issuing further guidance for half of those, which can not be waived outright. 

Two other graduation requirements -- training in emergency first aid and the completion of a virtual course -- require action by the General Assembly in order to be waived.

Real ID deadline extended until 2021 amid coronavirus outbreak

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The deadline for Real IDs has been extended until October 2021. The move was prompted by widespread Department of Motor Vehicle customer service center closures during the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.

The deadline for the IDs was Oct. 1. After the deadline, the licences will be required to access federal facilities, board domestic flights and enter nuclear power plants.

The application process must be completed in person, but Virginia has closed DMV customer service centers until April 2 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. DMV closures and restricted access nationwide will prevent people from receiving Real IDs. Gov. Ralph Northam added a 60-day extension to any license or registration expiring before May 15.

“The federal, state and local response to the spread of the Coronavirus here in the United States necessitates a delay in this deadline,” acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said in a news release. “Our state and local partners are working tirelessly with the Administration to flatten the curve and, therefore, we want to remove any impediments to response and recovery efforts.”

A regular driver’s license can still be used for driving, voting and verifying identity. Real IDs are marked by a black or gold star symbol in the top-right corner of the license.

The Real ID application process requires multiple forms of identity, such as:

  • U.S. passport or birth certificate

  • Social security card or W-2 form displaying social security number

  • Two of the following: valid Virginia driver’s license, recent utility bills, mortgage statements or leasing agreements

  • Proof of name changes if applicable

Non-U.S. citizens must show proof of identification and legal presence, such as an unexpired passport and visa, permanent resident card or employment authorization document. Virginians who do not have a Real ID must have federally accepted identification, such as a passport, to board a domestic flight or enter a secured federal facility.

Farmville resident Ethan Bowman, who was left unemployed by the coronavirus outbreak when he was unable to start a new political marketing job, has not received a Real ID but said an extension will help him.

“I don't have a copy of my birth certificate,” Bowman said. “So I would have to get that somehow before the deadline.”

Right now, there are other things on Bowman’s mind. He said his two roommates are out of work due to the pandemic, and the two grocery stores in the town of 8,000 were low on food Wednesday.

“We sent my cousin out for food and he just sent a bunch of pictures back to our little group chat, and it was just empty shelves, everywhere,” Bowman said of the Walmart Supercenter in Farmville.

Casey Tharpe, a respiratory therapy major at Radford University Carilion, received a Real ID in January after an eight-hour day of computer issues at the DMV in South Boston.

“You just had to check this box for Real ID, but honestly I really have no use whatsoever for Real ID,” Tharpe said. “I've been on a plane once in my life.”

Wolf stated that extending the deadline would also allow the Department of Homeland Security to work with Congress and implement the “needed changes to expedite the issuance of Real IDs.”

Virginia schools closed remainder of term; some businesses ordered shut

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia will close public and private schools for the remainder of the academic year, Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday during a press conference. He also outlined stricter guidelines for which businesses can remain open.

The move, which applies to K-12 schools, is part of an executive order that goes into effect March 24 at 11:59 p.m. until April 23. 

"We have a health crisis and we have an economic crisis but the sooner that we can get this health crisis under control, the sooner that our economy can recover," Northam said. 

Currently, the state’s 1.3 million public school students are in the middle of a two-week break due to the coronavirus. With 254 positive cases in Virginia and seven confirmed deaths, the governor finds it best to practice social distancing because “social distancing matters everywhere,” he said. Northam encourages schools to use online tools to finish students’ education for the rest of the academic year.

“School closures are necessary to minimize the speed at which COVID-19 spreads and protect the capacity of our healthcare system,” Northam said.

Northam said school division leaders will officially decide how students will learn the information they were meant to cover for the remainder of the year. The Virginia Department of Education will issue guidance to help school divisions think through those decisions and ensure every student is served fairly, Northam said. VDOE will submit a waiver to the federal government to lift end-of-year testing requirements and is exploring options to waive state mandated tests, he said.

The governor also placed additional restrictions on businesses. Restaurants must close their dining rooms but can remain open for carry-out and delivery. Recreational and entertainment facilities—including racetracks and historic horse racing facilities, bowling alleys and theaters—must close. Beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other non-essential establishments that can’t keep people more than 6 feet apart must close. Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet and feed stores, electronic and hardware retailers, and banks can remain open.

Autumn Carter, who has owned Red Salon Organics in Richmond for 20 years, said she has a loyal clientele. However, she is concerned about making lease payments and managing other business-related bills, with no new revenue. Her salon made the decision to close last week for two weeks, but did not anticipate shuttering business for this long.

“I agree with the governor’s decision but he has given us no debt relief and no guidance,” Carter said. “He has put us in a terrifying situation with no support.”

Public and private gatherings of more than 10 people are banned. Northam explained that local law enforcement could approach people gathering, say at beaches or the river, but that the goal isn’t to penalize people, “but to encourage people to do the right thing.” 

The governor noted that the commonwealth is moving into a period of sacrifice. Virginia had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, but Northam said that last week around 40,000 people filed for unemployment.

“We must put aside what we want and replace it with what we need,” he said.” It will require everyone to sacrifice.”

Northam issues order limiting public gatherings to 10 people

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state issued an order Tuesday that allows law enforcement to enforce a ban that prohibits more than 10 patrons in places such as restaurants, fitness centers and theaters.

Gov. Ralph Northam and State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver issued a public health emergency order to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19.

“I hope that everyone will have the common sense to stay home tonight and in the days ahead,” Northam said. “This order will ensure that state and local officials have the tools they need to keep people safe.”

All Virginians should increase social distancing, avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, the state said. This follows federal guidelines announced Monday. 

Oliver announced at Tuesday’s press conference that two people have died from the disease and 67 people are confirmed to have it, including one patient who is currently in a long-term care facility — which he said was “very concerning.” Oliver said about 48 tests are currently pending. The first confirmed case was announced on March 7.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high but the individual risk is dependent upon exposure. People over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions were urged to self-quarantine due to elevated vulnerability to the disease.

Oliver said that there are currently 300 to 400 COVID-19 testing kits in the commonwealth, with more on order. 

“I don’t want you to think that you are just getting a cold,” Oliver said. “This is a serious, serious pandemic and social distancing is, therefore, something we should do and take seriously, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our community.”

Oliver also said that there are federal plans to launch automated test sites and drive-through testing centers nationwide in the areas that have been hit the hardest by the disease.

Sentara Healthcare has opened several drive-through testing centers in Hampton Roads for those who are at the highest risk for the disease.

Northam has also rolled out new measures to support workers across the state that are being affected by closures due to the coronavirus, including eliminating the wait for unemployment benefits and increased eligibility for unemployment status. 

Workers may be able to qualify for unemployment if their employer slows or ceases operations due to the disease, if they have been issued a notice to self-quarantine by a medical or public health official but are not receiving sick pay or medical leave or if they are not receiving paid medical leave while staying home to take care of sick family members. The one-week unpaid waiting period was waived for benefits, and unemployment funds are available through the Virginia Employment Commission, Northam said. 

The state ordered all 75 offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles to close, in addition to urging the Supreme Court of Virginia to close all courts until April 6 for non-emergency or non-essential court proceedings. Online services are still available, the governor said, and 60-day extensions have been granted for expired licenses and registrations.

The State Corporation Commission also issued an order to suspend utility service disconnections for the next 60 days in order to provide relief for those financially impacted by COVID-19. 

“Together we will get through this and we will be a better Virginia,” Northam said. “Every single one of us has a personal responsibility in this situation, every one of us has a role in being part of the solution.”

The Virginia Department of Health currently has a 24-hour Coronavirus information hotline that can be reached at 877-ASK-VDH3 or 877-275-8343 for questions about the disease.

Health insurers say they'll waive coronavirus testing fees; Trump, Congress weigh payroll, industry aid

By BRYAN GALLION and NICOLE WEINSTEIN, Capital News Service
 
WASHINGTON — Major health insurance companies will waive copayments for novel coronavirus testing, Vice President Mike Pence said at a briefing with firm executives and President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

“While the risk to the average American of contracting the coronavirus remains low, we want a full partnership with industry and give the American people all the information they need to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus,” said Pence, who’s chairing the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The companies at the table — which insure nearly 240 million Americans through private insurance and support of Medicare and Medicaid, according to Pence — will also extend coverage for treatment in benefit plans and telemedicine while avoiding surprise billing. 

“We have been very focused on ensuring access to care and that cost is not an issue for people to have the testing appropriately done,” Gail Boudreaux, president and CEO of Anthem Inc., said. “So we’re pleased that we’re able to continue to expand this access.”

Telemedicine options aim to aid the country’s vulnerable senior population, allowing them to receive the necessary care without visiting a hospital or their doctor. 

“I would just like to say as a large servicer of Medicare, that we are very oriented to the aging population, and most importantly, how do we make it as easy as possible for them to receive their tests,” Humana CEO Bruce Broussard said. 

Over 8,500 specimens have been tested for the coronavirus in the United States since Jan. 18, while the number of cases ticks up across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Almost 650 cases have been confirmed so far, and 25 people have died from the virus across the 36 U.S. jurisdictions that have been affected.

Some healthcare professionals and members of Congress have expressed worry that not enough tests are available nationwide. 

“We are very worried about the president’s incompetence and lack of focus on fighting the spread of coronavirus,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, told reporters. “We believe that his lack of focus is hamstringing efforts to address this public crisis and inflicting pain on the stock market.”

Pence said an additional 4 million tests are expected to be distributed this week on top of the more than 1 million that are ready at CDC and U.S. Public Health Labs.

Members of Congress grilled CDC Director Robert Redfield about the shortage of testing at a House Appropriations Committee labor and health subcommittee hearing. Redfield pointed out the growing capacity for testing now that clinical laboratory networks LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics can administer them.

“We have slowed the spread of COVID19 through the United States as a consequence of the positive impact of the investment in public health that there has been at the federal, state, local and tribal level,” Redfield said in his testimony.

As cases of the coronavirus multiplied, schools and universities announced plans to close or move to remote teaching, airlines continued cutting schedules and major events — like Washington’s Gridiron Spring Dinner, an annual gathering of media and political people — were canceled. 

Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, who are vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced they were scrubbing planned rallies.

And Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League issued a joint statement that they were closing their team locker rooms to reporters because of the virus threat.  

The administration and Congress also are exploring potential economic aid to industries that will be hit hard by a major consumer slowdown. 

Trump said his administration is working closely with the cruise line and airline industries as people are canceling their travel plans, instead opting to stay home to lessen their chances of coming in contact with the virus. 

“They’re taking very strong steps in terms of people going on and going off. But they’re spending a lot of money and they are working very hard...So we are working very closely with them,” the president said at the briefing. “We’re helping them. They’re two great industries, and we’ll be helping them through this patch.”

Congress has been working on an economic package to alleviate financial strains caused by coronavirus response.

The president, accompanied by National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin, pitched a temporary payroll tax cut to Senate Republicans on Tuesday afternoon. He had no updates to share on the path forward following the meeting.

“We just had a great meeting. Tremendous unity in the Republican Party,” Trump said. “And we’re working on a lot of different things.  We’ve also had some very good updates on the virus. That’s working out very smoothly.”

Mnuchin also met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to identify “common ground” on legislative efforts that would support people affected by the virus. 

Pelosi told reporters that the “nature of it was pleasant” and that conversations will continue. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said after the meeting that he’d let the pair handle a bipartisan agreement.

“The secretary of the treasury is going to have ball control for the administration and I expect that will speak for us as well,” McConnell told reporters. “We’re hoping that he and the speaker can pull this together.”

Virginia colleges react to coronavirus pandemic

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia colleges and universities are extending spring break and adapting online classes amid the new coronavirus — along with more than 100 universities nationwide and still counting — after the flu-like illness was declared a world pandemic on Wednesday.

There are nine presumptive positive COVID-19 cases in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Most of them are in Northern Virginia, with one confirmed case in Central Virginia.

Professors are quickly pivoting to get material online, and some schools, like Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, are offering resources to help teachers adjust. Many students have expressed concern over lack of digital equipment and internet access.

Most universities are cancelling events with more than 100 attendees and have online resources for students to access updated information. Many colleges have canceled in-person classes, but faculty and staff will continue to work on campus. Below is a sample of universities that have changed schedules to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. 

James Madison University will extend their spring break until March 23 and will teach online classes until April 5. JMU President Jonathan Alger said in a release that students will be updated on the remainder of the semester on March 27.

Longwood University will be closed until March 18, cancelling in-person classes and events following a presumptive positive diagnosis for a Longwood student on Wednesday. In a release, Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley said faculty would continue to prepare for the possibility of online classes.

Norfolk State University extended spring break until March 23 and will teach classes online until April 6. University residences will reopen March 22.

Old Dominion University will resume classes online on March 23 after an extended spring break. ODU President John Broderick said in a statement posted on Facebook that the school would monitor the situation and reassess on April 6. 

Radford University extended its spring break for an additional week and plans to teach online until April 17, according to the university’s website. The university – as most academic institutions are doing – asked that faculty, staff and students complete a voluntary travel declaration forms.

“The information will be shared with local health officials as needed on a case-by-case basis,” Radford President Brian Hemphill said in a release. “For those who traveled, the University may ask individuals to self-monitor or self-isolate for two weeks depending upon the locations that were visited and the activities that were engaged in.”

University of Richmond extended spring break, cancelling classes from March 16-20, and will hold online classes until at least April 3.

The school’s website states that students with extenuating circumstances, such as international students, can submit a petition to stay in on-campus housing although access to student services and facilities will be limited.

University of Virginia students will also move to online courses starting on March 19, according to a release from U.Va. President James Ryan posted on Wednesday.

“We will not be holding classes on Grounds for the foreseeable future, quite possibly through the end of the semester,” Ryan said in a release. “We will reassess after April 5 at the earliest and periodically after that date.”

Virginia Commonwealth University announced Wednesday that it will extend its spring break for an additional week. When the semester resumes on March 23, classes will be taught remotely for the “foreseeable future.” Classrooms are expected to use digital tools such as Blackboard, videoconferencing and online programs. 

The release from VCU President Michael Rao said details regarding on-campus housing, student services and dining plans are forthcoming.

“I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for being mindful and respectful of others during this outbreak, which is not limited to any particular age group, geographic region, nationality, ethnicity or race,” Rao said.

Virginia Tech’s spring break is extended to March 23, with a transition to online courses for the remainder of the semester. All events with over 100 people are cancelled through at least April 30, though May commencement plans are still in place. 

“Our campus administrators, public health experts, and community leaders have been continuously engaged in monitoring the situation in Blacksburg, across Virginia, and around the world,” a release stated. “In consultation with our partners in the Virginia Department of Health, we are adopting a range of principle-based actions, effective immediately.”

William & Mary will start online classes March 23, after an extended spring break, to continue until at least April 1. University events are cancelled until April 3.

Virginia State University announced Wednesday that it will cancel or modify all scheduled events for the next 30 days. Modifications include pre packaged options in dining halls and livestreams for events, like the Mr. and Miss VSU Pageant and student government activities. Christopher Newport University took a similar approach, by rerouting study abroad plans and limiting serve-served food, according to its website

A few colleges remain open at this time: Liberty, Regent and Hampton universities and Reynolds Community College.

As of Wednesday, there are 938 confirmed and presumed positive COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bulk of cases are in Washington, California and New York. The infection has caused 29 deaths in the states. Worldwide, more than 118,300 people have the infection, including over 80,900 individuals living in mainland China. The outbreak has killed 4,292, reported the World Health Organization.

For more information about COVID-19 in Virginia, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus.

Bill to manage wildlife collision rate passes General Assembly

By Macy Pressley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly recently passed a measure that will create a plan to reduce wildlife-related vehicle accidents, though opponents tout the bill as an example of wasteful government spending.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, directs the Virginia departments of Game and Inland Fisheries, Transportation, and Conservation and Recreation to conduct a study to identify areas where wildlife habitat is fragmented by human development and roads with a high wildlife collision rate. 

Marsden said the measure, known as the Wildlife Corridor Action Plan, is intended to help prevent wildlife related car accidents. There were 61,000 such collisions reported in 2016, according to VDOT.

“People get killed in wildlife collisions, mostly with deer,” Marsden said. 

There were 211 deaths from such collisions in the United States, according to State Farm, which tracks deer-related insurance claims across the nation.

The bill would give the DGIF two years to complete a study. Marsden said that after the study is done, the General Assembly will look into building wildlife overpasses along roads identified as problem areas. He said wildlife overpasses were successfully implemented in Charlottesville. 

“They tried this on I-64 in Charlottesville and reduced wildlife collisions by 98%,” Marsden said. 

Ryan Brown, DGIF executive director, said the bill addresses a complex issue and is intended to protect wildlife in two ways. 

Brown said his department will work with other agencies to identify places where development has fragmented wildlife habitats and address the work needed to avoid human and wildlife conflict.

“Wildlife moves around and they don't read road signs,” Brown said. 

The agencies will identify wildlife corridors and study migration routes of native, game and migratory species using existing state data. They will assess human barriers such as roads, dams, power lines and pipelines and determine areas with a high risk of wildlife-vehicle collisions. The study will contain maps to detail such wildlife corridor infrastructure, as well as recommendations for creating safe wildlife crossings. Brown said options might include fencing along problem roads and bridge-like structures to assist wildlife with safe crossing.

Brown said this issue is likely to get worse over time. 

“As wildlife habitat becomes more and more fragmented in an urbanizing Virginia, that makes it difficult in terms of management of wildlife population,” he said. 

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, voted against the bill. He said the measure would be too costly. 

“ I do not believe the legislation is needed and it will end up creating another bureaucratic process that will cost time and money for no real benefit,” Cole said in an email. “The government is very good at establishing needless bureaucratic hurdles.”

Marsden said the legislation is worthwhile, considering Virginia is one of the top states for wildlife collisions. In 2018, Virginia ranked 12th for deer collisions, with drivers facing a 1 in 99 chance of hitting a deer, according to data from State Farm.

“It’s good for the animals and the drivers,” Marsden said. “It’s worth the effort to save property and save lives.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

Bill removing race requirement in marriage records passes

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- When William Christiansen married his college sweetheart, he was disturbed that they had to disclose their race to the registrar, considering they are an interracial couple. 

“It reminded me and my wife of a time when interracial couples were unable to get married,” said Christiansen. “It's an unneeded reminder of the discriminatory practices that dominated the South during Jim Crow.”

Both chambers of the General Assembly passed legislation to eliminate the race requirement on the marriage license application. Under Senate Bill 62, married couples will not have to disclose their race when filing marriage records, divorce and annulment reports to the state registrar. 

The bill was introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke. The legislation moved through every committee and legislative chamber without opposition from any lawmaker. 

“Asking for race seems completely unrelated to whether a state should recognize a marriage,” Christiansen said. “It sends a signal that those in charge of policy related to marriage applications care little about removing the legacy of discriminatory practices of their predecessors.”

Under current law, the race of the marrying parties along with other personal data is filed with the state registrar when a marriage is performed in the commonwealth. 

A lawsuit filed in September 2019 sparked the bill after three Virginia couples refused to declare their race while applying for marriage. The lawsuit resulted in Attorney General Herring declaring that couples applying for marriages would not be forced to disclose their race to the registrar.

“This is another Jim Crow law that should have been out of the books and I’m so grateful that the younger generation isn't judging people based on color of skin,” said Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake.

In October 2019, a federal judge struck down the race requirement as unconstitutional. Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. found that the law violated due process under the 14th Amendment. Alston said the law didn’t hold scrutiny against the U.S. Constitution.

“This new generation is much different,” Spruill said. “During my time, whites and blacks were thought of more differently.”

Other measures to repeal antiquated state laws were introduced during the 2020 General Assembly session. The General Assembly passed legislation that removes the crime of premarital sex, currently a Class 4 misdeameanor. 

“We are looking at old laws created by an older white establishment and just removing those,” Spruill said. “It's another step to say whites and blacks have the right to do what they want to do.”

Virginia is home to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia that overturned laws banning interracial marriage. In 1958, a judge sentenced Richard and Mildred Loving to a year in prison for marrying each other. He suspended the sentence for 25 years if the couple moved to the District of Columbia. After the Supreme Court of Virginia upheld their sentences, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their convictions. The court found that the law violated equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment. 

“This made both of us curious why questions like this were still on the application,” Christiansen said. “If people are of age, they should only need to identify them via Social Security number or something similar.”

Legislature approves mental health training for Virginia teachers

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly passed a bill that will require full-time teachers to complete mental health awareness training, though some advocates are split on how the training should be implemented.

Del. Kaye Kory, D- Fairfax, sponsored House Bill 74, which incorporated HB 716 and HB 1554. Kory, a former school board member, said teachers and faculty may be better able to understand and help prevent related issues if they are trained properly to recognize signs of mental health problems. The bill requires school boards to adopt and implement policies for the training, which can be completed online. School boards may contract the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, a community services board, a behavioral health authority, a nonprofit organization, or other certified trainer to provide such training. 

Kory said the bill was requested by several teacher groups in last year’s General Assembly. 

“My intention is that the training provides the ability to ask the right questions at the right time,” Kory said via email. “As substance abuse becomes more common in young people, the need for early detection and response becomes more and more clear.”

The intent of the bill is good, said 4th District Richmond City School Board Member Jonathan Young, but there are potential flaws with the online training program..

“It often ends up being nothing more than a check in the box,” he said. “I’m not interested in another check in the box, I’m interested in real mental health training for our teachers.”

Young said teachers need professional development opportunities “to increase their awareness and develop some new skill sets.”

Schools currently offer online training programs with modules tackling cyber security and conflict of interest training, Young said. He said learning about something as important as mental health through a computerized training module may not be effective enough to combat the current mental health crisis. 

Mental health training needs to be scaled up in schools and the solution has to be legitimate, Young said. 

Only 7% of expenditures for mental health go to children under 18, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, an advocacy and education group. Studies show that early intervention might reduce the prevalence of serious mental health cases, according to the organization.

Approximately 130,000 children and adolescents live with a serious mental illness and only 1 out of 5 children get the help that they need,according to the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children. 

Bruce Cruser, the executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, said the youth suicide rate has gradually increased in the state. He said that usually the people who need mental health services are people that have experienced trauma, for example, any youth that has been abused or lost their parents at a very young age.

The General Assembly also recently passed an amended bill that will allow K-12 students excused absences for mental health issues. The bill gives the Virginia Department of Education until Dec. 31 to establish guidelines for public school districts to grant students excused absences if they are dealing with mental or behavioral health issues.

Legislature passes bill to extend kindergarten hours

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Senate bill that almost doubles the instructional hours of kindergarten classes required for school accreditation from 540 hours to 990 hours passed its final hurdle in the House Thursday with a vote of 94-6.

 Senate Bill 238, introduced by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, directs the Board of Education to adopt regulations by July 1, 2022, along with the requirement that the standard school day for kindergarten students average to at least 5.5 instructional hours in order to qualify for full kindergarten accreditation. Local school boards may approve a four-day weekly calendar, so long as a minimum of 990 hours of instructional time is provided.

Not every school system currently offers a full day of kindergarten. Supporters of the bill said this legislation helps establish standards of quality.

“We're down two school systems in the state that are not yet at a level where all students go for full day kindergarten, one of those Virginia Beach, the other is Chesapeake,” Barker said in front of a House subcommittee meeting. “Virginia Beach has a plan where they're moving forward on it and Chesapeake is also increasing the number of students.”

Barker said that a full day of kindergarten benefits students’ academic performance, social interaction and involvement with teachers and other adults. “There are significant benefits to it,” he said. 

According to the bill’s 2020 Fiscal Impact Statement, the additional 450 hours would not affect funding paid from the state to local school divisions based on attendance. School divisions that do not currently provide the 990 hours of instructional time may experience additional costs to add classroom space and hire new staff. The fiscal impact to local school divisions cannot be determined.

“Ironically we are already paying them as if they had full-day kindergarten,” Barker said. 

Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Fairfax, inquired about the timeliness of the bill during the House meeting. She asked why the bill will be enacted in 2022 and not next year.

“What I tried to do was to be sensitive to some of the issues that some of those school systems might encounter or in some cases will encounter, but I would certainly be happy if they move faster,” Barker said.

Chesapeake and Virginia Beach are already taking steps to establish a full day of kindergarten for their schools. A representative of Chesapeake schools told the House panel that the school district had to gradually implement full days due to space limitations. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, asked why the legislation was needed if the districts were already implementing the changes.

Loudon County representatives have said they might in the future reverse the full day format, Barker said, and his legislation would guarantee all school systems are meeting the full day standard. 

Director of Government Relations at the Virginia Education Association Kathy Burcher said the VEA supports Barker’s bill, and the organization looks forward to the progress the bill will make.

“Putting it in code, ensuring that the requirement is there, will make sure that no school division slides off, particularly as we're looking at that continuum from birth through entering the workforce,” Burcher said. “We want to make sure there's no child that can possibly fall through the cracks in part-time kindergarten because it's a tremendous impact on their ability to stay on track for graduation.”

The bill now moves to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for approval.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Capital News Service