February 2021

Benchmark Community Bank Scholarship round open until February 21st

KENBRIDGE, VA. February 5, 2021. Benchmark Community Bank is once again sponsoring its $mart$tart Community Commitment Scholarships. High School seniors residing or attending school in one of the ten Southside Virginia/northern North Carolina counties served by Benchmark are invited to apply for one of ten $1,000 scholarships. Students who live or are educated outside of the service footprint, but who are Benchmark customers are also eligible to apply. Applications close at 11:59 pm on Sunday, February 21, 2021.

“Benchmark’s $martStart Scholarship is unique,” said President/CEO Jay Stafford. “As a community bank, we know how critical it is for people of all ages to support the civic organizations and activities that enhance their hometown’s quality of life.

“Our program’s eligibility is based on a student’s demonstrated involvement in extracurricular school and community activities rather than their academic achievement,” Stafford continued. “So many of our bright young minds have so much to share with the employers and organizations at home. We want to encourage them to return home and share their ideas, energy, and newfound educations by opening new businesses and getting involved in their communities.”

The application can be found online at https://www.bcbonline.com/scholarship. Students may also obtain a paper application by contacting their local Benchmark branch. A list of branches is available at www.bcbonline.com/locations.

The $mart$tart Community Commitment Scholarship is named for Benchmark’s $mart$tart money management account for young people ages 13-17. The account encourages students to learn the importance of saving for the future while incorporating a debit card that allows them to make decisions about managing spending and saving. It is part of the menu of youth-targeted accounts beginning with YES (Youth Excited about Saving) for ages 5-12 and Bridge for young adults ages 18-25.

Benchmark Community Bank, based in Kenbridge, VA, has 17 locations throughout Southside Virginia and northern North Carolina. Founded in 1971 as The Lunenburg County Bank, Benchmark is celebrating its 50th year serving businesses and consumers throughout its service footprint. You are invited to visit the bank’s website at www.bcbonline.com or follow them on Facebook/bcbonline to learn more about Benchmark Community Bank. Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender. With you for Life!

 

 

Cyran Lee “P Y” Wong

 

February 05, 1954 - February 24, 2021

Cyran Lee “P Y” Wong, 67, passed away Wednesday, February 24, 2021. He was preceded in death by his parents, Ah-Ching Wong and Sally and Franklin Grizzard and by a brother, Franklin F. Grizzard, Jr.

P Y is survived by devoted companion, Laura Torgeson; two daughters, Kapunahele Wong (Richard Spears) and Jennifer Wong-Chapman (Christopher); son, Jason Wong; three grandchildren, Malana Chapman, Miles Chapman and Kahekili Spears; brothers, Wayne Wong, Dale Grizzard and Carl Grizzard; three sisters, Aisley Daniels, Lorna Wong and Christina Wong and a number of nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions may be made to the Emporia/Greensville Humane Society, 113 Baker St, Emporia, Virginia 23847.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owenfh.com

Legislation hopes to expand broadband access for low-income students

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in an effort to expand broadband internet access to low-income students across the commonwealth. 

Senate Bill 1225, proposed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, authorizes school boards to appropriate funds to partner with private companies for the purpose of implementing and subsidizing broadband internet access for low-income and at-risk students. 

“Distance learning during the pandemic has left these students struggling not just with homework but with classwork and lessons as well,” Boysko said before a House panel.

The reduced rate broadband would be eligible for students who qualify for child nutrition programs and other programs that are recognized by the school board as a measure to identify at-risk students. That means programs that are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as the schools’ breakfast, lunch and after school snack programs.

These broadband programs already exist, but Boysko said the bill clarifies that school boards can enter into partnerships with private broadband companies and permits the companies to promote the service. Boysko said there are nearly 600,000 students who qualify for those supplemental programs, though 215,000 people are currently utilizing them.

One plan offered to qualifying families is $9.95 a month, according to a Comcast representative who spoke in favor of the bill. 

Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education said students without access to reliable technology are experiencing the brunt of the pandemics’ drawbacks.

 “If you don't have high-speed home Internet, and if you don't have a device, then you are in a world of hurt,” Lovell said. 

More than 20% of households in Virginia lack high-speed internet, according to a recent analysis by Future Ready Schools, a research project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national nonprofit committed to improving education outcomes. This translates to almost 394,000 children without an efficient network to complete their instruction. The same organization reports that over 200,000 students are without internet in households that earn below $50,000 annually. Future Ready Schools also found that 8% of Virginia households have no computer devices. This impacts over 140,000 students. 

Lovell said access to a cell phone instead of a computer is an insufficient way of learning. He challenged adversaries to complete work without access to a desktop.

“They should try to write a five-page research paper on any topic they would like … and try to do it on their cell phone,” Lovell said.

Disparities in academic performance can be seen within different races, income levels, English-language proficiency, learning disabilities and sex, according to Education Week, a news organization devoted to education news. 

Lower-income students are less likely to have access to a quality remote learning environment; devices that they do not need to share; high-speed broadband internet; and parental supervision during school hours, according to Mckinsey and Co., a consulting firm to governments and organizations.

Rural students are also suffering from a lack of broadband internet access.

Keith Perrigan, president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, said during a Fund Our Schools virtual rally earlier in the week that access to broadband internet is perhaps the biggest equity issue faced by the state’s rural students. Fund Our Schools is a coalition of education advocates that work to increase Virginia public schools funding.

“Students are driving 10, 12, 15 miles to get to their nearest Dollar General who will allow them to sit in the parking lot and tap onto the Wi-Fi,” Perrigan said. “And you have students in other parts of the state that sit in their living room and have access to the internet at their disposal all the time.” 

Boysko said her bill is not going to solve the problem of rural broadband infrastructure. Other bills will expand access to infrastructure building. She said the bill is primarily for urban and suburban areas where families can’t afford to pay for the internet but there’s existing broadband infrastructure in place.

Both the House and Senate budget bills propose $50 million per year from the general fund for two years for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. The funds will supplement the construction costs of expanding access to areas that are presently unserved by broadband providers. The Department of Housing and Community Development will work with the Broadband Advisory Council to designate unserved areas that require funds. 

Boysko also sponsored SB1413 that will make permanent a pilot program that permits some electric utility companies to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide broadband capacity to unserved areas of the state.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Biden taps three for Postal Service board; signals possible move on DeJoy

By JENNIFER MANDATO,Capital News Service Washington Bureau

President Joe Biden on Wednesday nominated three people to fill vacancies on the United States Postal Service Board of Governors.

The nominations came the same day Louis DeJoy apologized to a congressional panel about poor mail service but insisted the problems existed before he took over the USPS.

Congressional Democrats have written letters and publicly called on the president to fill board vacancies in a move that could ultimately result in DeJoy being out of a job. 

The board vacancies were a major topic of debate during a Wednesday hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Ron Bloom, the board chairman, told lawmakers that the board has lacked full attendance for at least six or seven years. The 11-member board has nine members in staggered terms chosen by the president. The board selects the postmaster general, and then the board and the postmaster general appoint the deputy postmaster general (a position also currently vacant).

As the board is currently made up of six white males, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, called for diversity.

“An agency of over 640,000 employees that come from every walk of life and serve the entire American public should have representation at the top reflective of the broader American population,” she said. 

She asked  DeJoy:  “Do you see it as a problem that the Board of Governors for the United States Postal Service looks like a millionaire white boys club?”

It appears that Biden’s nominees are intended to address that lack of diversity and all have some degree of experience with the postal industry.

Anton Hajjar is the former general counsel of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and has also served as an adviser and pro bono attorney in employment discrimination cases.

Amber McReynolds is the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit dedicated to expanding and improving vote-by-mail systems in all 50 states.

The third nominee is Ronald Stroman, who recently served as deputy postmaster general and chief governmental relations officer for the USPS.

Biden’s nominees will all have to be confirmed by the Senate. If approved, the newly-filled board could move in the direction Democrats are hoping for - adding two men of color and a woman - and create a majority to replace DeJoy, a donor to former President Donald Trump.
 
DeJoy maintained that many of the problems at the Postal Service existed long before he became postmaster general.

“The years of financial stress, under-investment, unachievable service standards and lack of operational precision have resulted in a system that does not have adequate resilience to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances,” he said.

Some committee members were less than impressed with this approach.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, scoffed at DeJoy’s plan to lengthen mail delivery times.

“It sounds like your solution to the problems you’ve identified is to surrender,” Raskin said. “Because the mail has been late under your leadership we’re just gonna change the standards and build it into the system that it will be late.”

Throughout the hearing, DeJoy alluded to a “strategic plan.” He told Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, that plan would be ready in the next two weeks and that he is “always happy” to return before the committee and explain the details of it.

But Rep, Katie Porter, D-California, was skeptical.

“I've heard that you have a new strategic plan, but I'm really concerned that this plan may neither be strategic nor a plan,” she said.

Earlier in the day, redesigned Postal Service delivery trucks were unveiled and are set to replace current vehicles that are, on average, 25 years old. The “next generation delivery vehicle” is set to take to the streets in 2023 and will include increased safety features – shockingly, airbags – and more cargo space. Some of the fleet also will be electric.

Another issue facing the Postal Service is Medicare integration for Postal Service employees. 

The USPS is the only agency required to pre-fund employees’ retirement funds. Only 73 percent of Postal Service retirees are enrolled in the program, and if the Medicare integration is passed it would require current employees to enroll once they turn 65.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, and chairwoman of the panel, said that Medicare integration would save the USPS $10 billion over the next 10 years, to which DeJoy said that projections on his end show at least $30 billion in savings over that same time frame.

Each witness, including Bloom and Mark Dimondstein, president of the APWU, announced support for Medicare integration.

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

 

First Case of B.1.1.7 COVID-19 Variant Identified in the Central Region of Virginia

(RICHMOND, Va.) – The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) today announced that the first case of the SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 has been identified in a sample from an adult resident of Central Virginia who had no history of travel during the exposure period. The B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom in late 2020, is associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19. A preliminary report from experts in the United Kingdom indicates that this variant causes more severe illness than other variants, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding. To date, the B.1.1.7 variant has been identified in 44 other U.S. states.

The Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) confirmed the case using next-generation sequencing that provides a genetic blueprint of the virus that causes COVID-19. In addition to this case of the B.1.1.7 variant, eleven other cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and three cases of the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.351 variant (first identified in South Africa) have now been identified in Virginia, as of February 24. With the combined state and national surveillance efforts, it is likely that additional cases with SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern will be identified.

Viruses change all the time, and VDH expects to see new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as disease spreads. As our public health officials closely monitor the emergence of these SARS-CoV-2 variants in our Commonwealth, it is critical that all Virginians comply now with mitigation measures. We are in a race to stop the spread of these new variants. The more people that become infected, the greater that chance the virus will mutate and a variant will arise that could undermine the current vaccination efforts. Public health recommendations for stopping the spread of COVID-19 will work for all COVID-19 variants. This means wearing masks correctly, staying at least six feet from others, avoiding crowds, washing hands often, getting vaccinated for COVID-19 when it is your turn, and staying home if you are infected with COVID-19 or if you have had close contact with someone with COVID-19.

As of February 23, 2021, approximately 1.9 million Virginians have joined the fight against COVID-19 using their mobile devices. This includes 1,008,322 downloads of COVIDWISE – the nation’s first app using the Google/Apple framework and the second most downloaded exposure notifications app in the United States. An estimated 900,975 additional iPhone users have also turned on COVIDWISE Express, which is a secondary exposure notifications option specifically for iPhone users.

DCLS began sequencing positive COVID-19 samples in March 2020, becoming one of the first public health labs in the nation to use this technology to examine the genetic makeup of the virus and track how it is changing and being transmitted in the Commonwealth. DCLS is working with other labs in Virginia to solicit additional positive samples to sequence so public health officials can get a representation of variants circulating throughout Virginia.

For more information about COVID-19 variants, visit the VDH COVID-19 Testing website and the CDC New COVID-19 Variants website. For more information on DCLS and its use of next-generation sequencing, visit dgs.virginia.gov/dcls.

Benchmark Community Bank Scholarship application round extended through March 7th

KENBRIDGE, VA. February 22, 2021. Benchmark Community Bank has extended the deadline for its annual $mart$tart Community Commitment Scholarships. Due to widespread power outages experienced by many households following recent ice storms in the Benchmark service footprint, the bank has extended the deadline until 11:59 pm on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

“The ice storms earlier this month continue to wreak havoc on so many of the families in our area,” said President/CEO Jay Stafford. “We want the application opportunity for our scholarships available to as many high school seniors as possible.”

The $mart$tart Community Commitment Scholarship is based on a student’s demonstrated involvement in extracurricular school and community activities rather than their academic achievement, Stafford said. 

“We are looking at how a student is serving at school and in the community, as well as what they share in a brief essay regarding their feelings on community involvement. We have some really great students committed to giving back to their communities now and in the future.”

The application can be found online at https://www.bcbonline.com/scholarship. Students may also obtain a paper application by contacting their local Benchmark branch. A list of branches is available at www.bcbonline.com/locations.

Benchmark Community Bank, based in Kenbridge, VA, has 17 locations throughout Southside Virginia and northern North Carolina. Founded in 1971 as The Lunenburg County Bank, Benchmark is celebrating its 50th year serving businesses and consumers throughout its service footprint. You are invited to visit the bank’s website at www.bcbonline.com or follow them on Facebook/bcbonline to learn more about Benchmark Community Bank. Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender. With you for life!

Anonymous Foundation Replaces Floors at Jackson-Feild

After twenty-six years of hard use, two classrooms at Jackson-Feild’s Gwaltney School have been replaced thanks to grant funding from a Southside Virginia foundation that wishes to remain anonymous.

The Gwaltney School provides both regular and special education for the youth at Jackson-Feild. Great emphasis is placed on assisting students improve their academics in order to restore them to their grade level, to prepare them to take the GED exam, or earn sufficient credits to earn their diploma. Students also receive online vocational training to assist them in transitioning into independent living.

This anonymous foundation has made prior grants addressing specific needs at Gwaltney School to help students achieve their academic goals.

“There Is No Context”: General Assembly Votes To Remove Byrd Statue

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly has voted to remove the statue of former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square, the area around the Virginia State Capitol.

House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until the General Assembly chooses its final location. The bill passed the House in late January on a 63-34 vote, while the Senate approved the measure Tuesday on a 36-3 vote.

Byrd served as state governor from 1926 to 1930 and U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. His massive resistance campaign pushed for Southern states to reject the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, cutting off state funding and closing schools that tried to integrate.

Jones called the statue a reminder of the institutional racism in Virginia during the bill’s first committee hearings. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, echoed Jones’ sentiments during the bill’s final reading on the Senate floor.

“When I was an intern working for the first African American governor and walked past that statue every day, I knew I was his worst nightmare,” McClellan said. “I feel it every time I walk past it.”

McClellan spoke of the pain African Americans have endured in Virginia due to Byrd’s disenfranchisement of Black voters and the dehumanization that Byrd cast on them.

“There is no context that could be placed on a statue on Capitol Square, the ultimate public park with public art, that could erase the pain that Harry Byrd and his legacy invokes for African American Virginians,” McClellan said.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Warrenton, gave a speech on the Senate floor portraying Byrd as a humble, industrious man who worked in the apple business, saved a local newspaper and improved Virginia’s highway infrastructure. Vogel described Byrd’s “massive resistance” campaign against school integration in the 1950s as a stain on an otherwise remarkable career.

“That is a great stain on his career and a great embarrassment,” Vogel said. “But he was a man of a certain time in a certain era.”

Vogel asked the senators to “look at the whole man and consider that we are each a sum of all our parts, the good and the bad.”

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, pushed back on Vogel’s request, saying probably 100,000 students if not more were kept out of school for years due to Byrd’s push for segregation.

“I just don’t see how we can overlook the fact that all of these children … were kept out of school for four years,” Saslaw said. “I think that we should not be honoring people to that degree in Capitol Square.”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill last year to remove Byrd’s statue. Walker later pushed for his bill to be removed.

Walker voted against HB 2208 during its final reading in the House on Jan. 27.

The push to remove statues of Confederate leaders accelerated after protests began following the death of George Floyd last May. Floyd died in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimated the statue’s removal will cost approximately $250,000, according to the bill’s impact statement. Storage costs are estimated at $7,000 per year until the final home of the statue is determined.

Byrd’s statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966. The bipartisan vote to remove it comes on the eve of the 65th anniversary of Byrd’s massive resistance campaign, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Vogel were the only senators to vote against the bill.

Rita Davis, council to Gov. Ralph Northam, spoke of Northam’s support for the bill during committee hearings. Northam is expected to sign the bill.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers pass bill to keep schools from suing over student meal debt

"Classic school lunch. Yum." by Ben+Sam is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Adelle Settle learned in 2017 that school lunches were being taken out of children’s hands when they couldn’t pay for the meal. Instead, children were given a cheese sandwich or a snack. 

Settle was inspired to start Settle the Debt, a nonprofit organization that pays off school meal debt at Prince William County schools. The organization has raised almost $200,000 in almost four years, Settle said.

“It leaves the kid hungry, you’re not giving the child an adequate meal at that point and people see it,” Settle said. “It makes them feel terrible about themselves, so I just wanted to make sure that we were not stigmatizing children in a place where they go to feel safe.”

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, introduced House Bill 2013 that would prohibit school boards from suing families to collect school meal debt. The bill passed the House of Delegates late last month with a 69-31 vote. The Senate passed the bill Monday with a 29-10 vote. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

The measure builds off of two bills Roem introduced during the 2020 General Assembly session, HB697 and HB703. The legislation went into effect last summer. 

HB 697 prohibits school employees from discarding a meal that was served to a child who then couldn’t pay for it. HB 703 allows school boards to solicit donations to offset or eliminate school meal debt.

“School meal debt as a concept should not exist and school meal debt shaming, likewise, should not exist,” Roem said. “We are talking about penalizing children and keeping children from eating or shaming children for their parents financial situation. Both of which are messed up and shouldn’t happen.”

Roem said there are 27 school divisions in the state that have policies to take legal action against those with outstanding school meal debt. She said in one instance, a school division outlined the policy on its Facebook page. 

Roem said she thinks if debt occurs, schools should deal with it directly instead of taking people to court. 

“Essentially, we are penalizing parents for being poor and that’s messed up,” Roem said.

There are families that don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch but also can’t afford to pay for lunch, Samora Ward, community organizer for Virgina Black Leadership Organizing Collabrative, said earlier this month during a Senate a subcommittee meeting. Virginia Bloc’s The Care Project is an organization that is aimed at making sure students have access to school meals as well as “to protect the financial security of families trying to pay for school meals.”

“We know that this pandemic and its economic repercussions will only exacerbate this problem, leaving families burdened with school meal debt,” Ward said.

Roem said 15% of the outstanding school meal debt in Prince William County has been from students on reduced lunch. 

Tom Smith, legislative liaison for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said during the bill’s subcommittee hearing that the association sent an informal survey to school divisions to find the outstanding debt cost. About half of school divisions in the state responded and the total was over $1.3 million, he said. 

Smith recommended an amendment to the bill that would have allowed school divisions to apply to the state literary fund to recoup debt, capping it at $250,000 per year, per division. 

“The literary fund is provided through fines and tickets, so people committing crimes would help feed children,” Smith said. 

Roem said during the meeting that she reached out directly to Smith’s office for feedback before the bill was introduced. Virginia Association of School Superintendents said they opposed the bill but didn’t provide other feedback, Roem said. She said the suggested amendment should have happened “considerably earlier in the process.” 

Stacey Haney, chief lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, said the organization supported allowing school divisions to use money from the literary fund to recoup debt.

“It gets what the delegate wants, in that lawsuits won’t be filed, but it also enables school divisions to recoup the money from the literary fund so that we can keep our school lunch programs afloat and don’t have to cut from other places to recoup that debt,” Haney said.

Salaam Bhatti, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, wrote a poem in support of the bill and read it aloud earlier this month during a subcommittee meeting.

“Roses are red, violets are blue,” Bhatti said, “when a child can’t pay for a meal, it doesn’t mean we should sue.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Rep. McEachin Announces 2021 Congressional Art Competition

 

RICHMOND, VA – Today Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-04) announced the opening of the 2021 Congressional Art Competition. All high school students (grades 9-12) who are residents of Virginia’s fourth congressional district are invited to submit an original work of art to compete for an opportunity for their artwork to hang in the US Capitol for one year.

“The annual Congressional Art Competition is something my team and I look forward to each spring,” said Congressman McEachin. “Each year we receive so many wonderful submissions, which truly showcase the immense, promising talent of our students. This event is a fantastic opportunity for our students to express themselves creatively, and I am looking forward to reviewing the artwork with our panel of judges.”

Students should submit a high-resolution photo of their original artwork and a completed 2021 Student Information and Release form by 4:30PM on Monday, April 26, 2021 to VA04.Projects@mail.house.gov with the subject line “Art Competition.”

For additional information, competition rules and forms, please visit https://mceachin.house.gov/services/art-competition

Dr. Ingrid Vaughan Earns Team Member of the Month at VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital for January 2021

South Hill, VA (2/17/21) - Dr. Ingrid Vaughan, a veteran in the anesthesia practice for 30 years, joined VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in 2014 and has most recently earned the January Team Member of the Month award for STAR Service. While her years of service show obvious dedication, her volunteering outside of normal hours inspired her nomination.

“During the Holidays, with the rising number of COVID patients and limited staff, Dr. Vaughan came in to work on her day off and volunteered as a donner and doffer for the covid rooms,” Dr. Ikenna Ibe, Vice President of Medical Affairs, said in his nomination. Staff have volunteered their time to take extra shifts to assist in making sure personal protective equipment is worn and removed properly.

During the presentation, Dr. Ibe said her assistance with volunteering to help staff has been a blessing to many.

Todd Howell, Vice President of Professional Services, awarded Dr. Vaughan with the STAR Service award, STAR pin, a parking tag that allows her to park wherever she wants for the month of February and a $40 gift card.

Dr. Vaughan lives in South Hill and has a 26-year-old daughter who lives in Wilmington, NC. They both are animal lovers and avid runners, having run a half marathon together every year for 6 years until this past year. 

Dr. Vaughan said she has always tried to start the morning in a positive way since the pandemic. “I try to think of what I am grateful for,” she said.

Other nominees included Jane Allen, Ricky Bland, Theresa Griles, Tayanna Jones, and Rose Walker.

Virginia will join 22 states in abolishing the death penalty

By Christina Amano Dolan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia will become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after two bills passed both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly on Monday. 

In a release issued earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam said he looks forward to signing a legislation that outlaws the death penalty. 

Under current state law, an offender convicted of a Class 1 felony who is at least 18 years of age at the time of the offense and without an intellectual disability faces a sentence of life imprisonment or death. 

The identical House and Senate bills eliminate death from the list of possible punishments for a Class 1 felony. The bills do not allow the possibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. The measures will also reclassify capital murders to aggravated murders. 

The move will change the sentence for the two remaining inmates on death row to life imprisonment without eligibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. 

House Bill 2263, introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, passed the Senate Monday on a 22-16 vote following a lengthy floor debate. While both parties reached an agreement on eliminating the death penalty, Republicans argued for a proposed amendment to remove the possibility of a shortened life sentence. 

Under current state law, judges are able to suspend part of life sentences, with the exception of the murder of a law enforcement officer. Neither bill will change this policy.

In Monday’s hearing, Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, argued for a floor substitute that would replace capital murder charges with a mandatory minimum life sentence. The government should not have the ability to sentence people to death due to the possibility of false convictions, but those who commit “heinous” crimes should never face the possibility of parole, he said. 

“If you kill multiple people, or under the circumstances under our death penalty statute, you should not see the light of day,” Stanley said. “You should not taste liberty and freedom again.” 

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the Senate bill that passed the House, said adopting Stanley’s amendment would introduce 14 new mandatory minimum life sentences. 

“I think it’s awfully presumptuous for us to just decide that these 14 situations deserve this one and only punishment,” Surovell said. 

Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond, furthered the argument against the amendment by mentioning a Washington Post article on the recent release of Joe Ligon at age 83. Ligon was sentenced to life imprisonment at 15 years old, pleading guilty under the impression that he would be eligible for parole 10 years later, Morrissey said. He was released from prison after serving 68 years. 

“That seems to be inconsistent,” Morrissey said, referring to Stanley’s argument that while juries can get it wrong, a convicted person sentenced to life imprisonment should never be able to seek parole. “If you get it wrong, and somebody is executed, you can also get it wrong when you sentence somebody to life in prison.” 

Judges currently have the authority to ensure life sentences and will have the same authority with the bill’s passage, Surovell said.

The floor substitute by Stanley was rejected. 

Concluding the hearing, Surovell offered final remarks on the importance of Virginia’s step to abolish the death penalty. He believes the new measure speaks to the commonwealth’s humility and value of human life. 

“It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to,” Surovell said. 

Surovell hopes that the measure’s passage will “send a message to the rest of the world that Virginia is back to leading on criminal justice.”

Northam; House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw issued a joint statement regarding the legislations’ passages. 

“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers Pass Bills to Collect Data on Pretrial Detention

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this week that lawmakers said will increase transparency and equity in the judicial system, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will create a centralized, publicly-accessible data collection system on pretrial detention. Senate Bill 1391 and House Bill 2110 both passed Thursday.

Pretrial detention is the practice of holding a defendant in jail until trial. It is used, officials say, to guarantee the defendant appears in court and to ensure public safety. The compiled pretrial data would be distributed annually by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, or VCSC. 

The bills require the VCSC to compile and share data on the sex, age, race and zip code of an individual charged with a crime. The individual’s criminal background will also be included in the report without their name. No case identifying information could be accessed through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or made publicly available, per the bills.

Maisie Osteen, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the bills are a tremendous opportunity to understand release conditions like bond or pretrial services. She said they also illuminate trends in the racial, gender and economic demographics of people in jail. 

“This is the heart of transparency,” Osteen said. “It's opening up the actual raw data to the public in a downloadable, accessible format.” In Virginia, 46% of the total jail population is being held pretrial, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Lucas and Herring drafted the bills at the Virginia State Crime Commission's recommendation. The lawmakers used data from the commission’s 2017 Pretrial Data Project, which sought to study the different types of release mechanisms involved in pretrial services, such as bond or pretrial holdings. Of the individuals included in the data, 40% were Black, though this group makes up 20% of the commonwealth’s total population. 

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, said the commission’s new role was the first step in creating a more equitable Virginia. The institute provides information on current criminal justice issues and works to reform pretrial policies.

“The point of the bill is for advocates to take what they already knew was true about the way the system operates in terms of its disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Burdeen said. “And surely, its disproportionate impact on poor Virginians of all races.”

Being in jail before trial can drastically destabilize the accused and their families, according to a 2020 National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) study. The research found that as a result of pretrial detention people were more likely to lose connections to employment, housing and family. 

Osteen said most people are held pretrial because they can’t make bail and are more likely to have non salaried employment. She said they stand a greater chance of losing employment after a few days of being unable to report to work. This financial instability can then lead to a loss of housing or loss of children.

The NLADA study also found that those held in pretrial detention are more likely to be rearrested for new crimes, and more likely to have longer prison sentences. 

Osteen said that when a judge sees a defendant who “looks like a criminal” it can lead to harsher sentencing.

“I've heard judges say, honestly, ‘It's just easier to send somebody to prison if they show up in a prison or jail outfit, then I already know they've been plucked from their lives,’” Osteen said.

She said the judges are less likely to feel as if sentencing is the destabilization factor because it has already happened to the defendant.

Osteen said she is excited by the potential impact data collection will have on understanding the commonwealth’s justice system. She wishes the legislation included information about why judges decide to detain a defendant or not, a standard not currently required, Osteen said.

According to the VCSC, this legislation will cause a significant increase in the agency’s workload. The agency expects it will need additional funding to finance two new salaried positions.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia lawmakers advance Consumer Data Protection Act

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly is advancing legislation that allows Virginia consumers more protection with their online data, though opponents say the measure does not include the ability for people to file private lawsuits against companies that breach the proposed law.

The measure is known as the Consumer Data Protection Act in both chambers of the state legislature. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, passed the House 89-9 on Thursday. The House version, sponsored by Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, is awaiting a final vote but was passed by for the day Thursday.

“The consumers should have the right to know what is being collected about them,” Hayes said when introducing the bill.

The data protection act allows consumers to retrieve a copy of their online data, amend or delete this data and opt out of allowing large businesses to sell the data. 

Hayes wants businesses to responsibly handle consumer information. 

“The bottom line is, we want the controllers to know what their role is when it comes to the protection of individual’s data,” Hayes said during a House committee meeting. “We believe that no matter who you are as an organization, you need to be responsible when it comes to handling of data of consumers.”

The bills apply to businesses that control or process personal data of at least 100,000 consumers per year. It also impacts businesses that handle data of at least 25,000 consumers per year and make more than half of their gross revenue from selling personal data. The businesses must be located in Virginia or serve Virginians. 

Under the Consumer Data Protection Act, the attorney general’s office would handle the enforcement of this legislation. The office would handle anything from consumer complaints to the enforcement of fines. 

“The attorney general’s office will have the depth and breadth, experience, the investigative tools necessary to know and to follow trends of companies and to make sure that they bring the muscle of that office to the table,” Hayes said.

Microsoft’s Senior Director of Public Policy Ryan Harkins testified in favor of the proposed law. 

“We’ve seen dramatic changes in technology over the past couple of decades and U.S. law has failed to keep pace,” Harkins said. “It’s fallen behind much of the rest of the world and failed to address growing challenges of privacy.” 

Harkins said that Microsoft has advocated for data protection laws since 2005. He said that the public has lost trust in technology, and passing comprehensive data protection legislation can help win the public’s trust back.

Harkins said that the measure stands alongside leading data protection legislation such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act and aspects of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

“In some respects, it would go further and provide the most comprehensive and robust privacy laws in the United States,” Harkins said.

Attorney Mark Dix spoke in opposition of the bill on behalf of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. He said the measure would hurt Virginians because it is “going to close the courthouse doors.”

“It provides no cause of action whatsoever for the consumer, the person who is actually hurt,” Dix said. “It provides no remedy whatsoever for the consumer.”

Dix argued that having the attorney general’s office handle the enforcement of this legislation limits the consumer.Using a hypothetical scenario, Dix asked what would happen to Virginians if there was an administration change and the Attorney General did not prioritize data protection.

The Consumer Data Protection Act would take effect in January 2023. Marsden told a Senate subcommittee that allows time to “deal and field any other tweaks to the bill or difficulties that someone figures out.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

REMEMBERING THE 500,000 AMERICANS LOST TO COVID-19

BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
 
A PROCLAMATION

 As of this week during the dark winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 500,000 Americans have now died from the virus. That is more Americans who have died in a single year of this pandemic than in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined.  On this solemn occasion, we reflect on their loss and on their loved ones left behind.  We, as a Nation, must remember them so we can begin to heal, to unite, and find purpose as one Nation to defeat this pandemic.

     In their memory, the First Lady and I will be joined by the Vice President and the Second Gentleman for a moment of silence at the White House this evening.  I ask all Americans to join us as we remember the more than 500,000 of our fellow Americans lost to COVID-19 and to observe a moment of silence at sunset.  I also hereby order, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White House and on all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions until sunset February 26, 2021.  I also direct that the flag shall be flown at half-staff for the same period at all United States embassies, legations, consular offices, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations.

     IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-second day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fifth.

JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.

Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Successfully Launches Fifteenth Resupply Mission to International Space Station

Spacecraft named for pioneering Black NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson

RICHMOND—The 15th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station successfully launched on Saturday, February 20 at 12:36 p.m. from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A located on Wallops Island. The mission, designated NG-15, is a partnership of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman’s unmanned Cygnus spacecraft launched on the company’s Antares rocket, carrying approximately 8,200 pounds of cargo that included scientific investigations, crew supplies, and hardware. A secondary payload of thirty ThinSats, which are small satellites that carry scientific experiments into space and are capable of transmitting data from low earth orbit, was integrated on the second stage of the Antares as part of a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) student outreach program.

The Cygnus spacecraft has been named in honor of longtime Virginia resident and pioneering Black NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and in celebration of Black History Month. Northrop Grumman traditionally names each spacecraft after an individual who has played a pivotal role in the legacy of human spaceflight. Johnson’s hand-written calculations were critical to the success of America’s early human spaceflight missions. She was among the group of Black women mathematicians at NASA who were celebrated in the 2016 film ‘Hidden Figures,’ based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly with the same title. The February 20 launch date also marks the 59th anniversary of the launch of Friendship 7, a mission that made John Glenn the first American astronaut to orbit Earth. Glenn asked Johnson to verify the complex orbital trajectory calculations prior to his flight.

“This important mission honors the legacy of Katherine Johnson, who broke through barriers of gender and race, and whose mathematical skill has been integral to the advancement of human spaceflight,” said Governor Northam. “Her work also paved the way for the delivery of critical equipment and scientific experiments to the International Space Station, like that which is aboard this spacecraft bearing her name. We remain committed to making strategic investments to support the growing aerospace industry in Virginia and help shape the future of space exploration.”

The S.S. Katherine Johnson will arrive at the International Space Station on Monday, February 22, and will remain attached to the space station for approximately three months. NG-15 is the thirteenth successful Antares launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A, which serves as the homeport of the Northrop Grumman Antares launch vehicle. The Commonwealth built the $120 million launch pad to accommodate the Antares 230+ rocket configuration and Cygnus spacecraft. 

Once the S.S. Katherine Johnson is deployed to the International Space Station filled with the primary cargo payload, the ThinSats will be released into Extreme Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) from the second stage of the rocket. Students will be able to collect and analyze data relayed from their satellites for approximately five days before they deorbit and burn upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Today’s mission marks the second time Virginia Space has launched ThinSats on a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket—the inaugural launch was on April 17, 2019. First Lady Pamela Northam witnessed the liftoff and participated in a virtual ThinSats team meeting with students ahead of the launch.

“As a former science educator, I understand the importance of sparking curiosity and inspiring young minds to explore their world,” said First Lady Pamela Northam. “I am so pleased to be able to watch this innovative STEM initiative launch the dreams—and possibly careers—of students across the country thanks to the amazing team at Wallops.”

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (Virginia Space), in partnership with Northrop Grumman, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, and Twiggs Space Lab, created the ThinSat Program, a low-cost initiative to increase student engagement in STEM-related fields. Through this program, students in grades 4-12, as well as university-level students, have developed satellite hardware, tested sensor components with low and high-altitude balloon flights, analyzed data, and as of today, launched an actual payload into space. 

Satellites for the ThinSat NG-15 mission were built by students from more than 50 elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities located in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Princeton University, Salisbury University, and Taylor University, along with Virginia institutions Old Dominion University, George Mason University, and Virginia Tech designed custom payloads for the ThinSat NG-15 mission. Learn more about the ThinSat Program and the custom payloads here

“We are living in such an exciting time for space exploration,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. “Today, we launched an Antares rocket carrying a spacecraft that bears the name of NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson, witnessed the ingenuity of students, and marked the fifteenth resupply mission to the International Space Station.” 

“The Virginia Space ThinSats mission for NG-15 was especially challenging for schools during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Virginia Space CEO and Executive Director Dale Nash. “Like the vigilant Virginia Space workforce that has safely continued mission essential work during COVID-19, these students and their instructors persevered, showing tremendous resilience and grace.” 

The Cygnus spacecraft is also carrying critical materials to directly support some of the more than 250 science and research investigations that will occur during future expeditions. The scientific investigations launching on Cygnus are part of commercial and academic payloads across a variety of disciplines, including:

  • Micro-16, a study of muscle strength changes in worms that will help scientists better understand the cause of decreased muscle strength that astronauts experience in microgravity. The findings could support the development of countermeasures to help maintain crew member health and support new therapies to combat the effects of age-related muscle loss on Earth.
  • The European Space Agency Dreams experiment will serve as a technology demonstration of the Dry-EEG Headband in microgravity, while also monitoring astronaut sleep quality during a long duration flight mission.
  • Spaceborne Computer-2 will build off of the success of its first study to explore how commercial off-the-shelf computer systems—those without radiation shielding or other modifications—can advance space exploration by processing data significantly faster in space, speeding scientists’ time-to-insight from months to minutes.
  • The Protein-Based Artificial Retina Manufacturing experiment builds upon an earlier project and will examine how microgravity may optimize production of artificial retinas or retinal implants, which could benefit millions of people on Earth who suffer from retinal degenerative diseases.
  • The International Space Station serves as a testing ground for technologies that NASA plans to use on future Artemis missions to the Moon. The Artemis HERA on Space Station (A-HoSS) is a radiation detection system developed for the Orion spacecraft and certified for use on NASA’s Artemis II mission. The investigation will evaluate this hardware in the space radiation environment prior to the Artemis II mission, the first mission on which astronauts will orbit the Moon in the spacecraft.
  • Previous research has shown that microgravity produces larger, clearer protein crystals that can be used to help better understand diseases and identify treatments. Real-Time Protein Crystal Growth-2 will test new ways of growing protein crystals in space and allow scientists to make real-time adjustments to the growth conditions throughout the duration of the experiment.
  • The Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) is a critical element of regenerative life support technology that provides clean air and water to the space station crew. The Exploration ECLSS: Brine Processor System investigation will upgrade to the space station’s life support system to help provide more clean air and water.
     

This will be the fourth mission under Northrop Grumman’s Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS-2) contract with NASA, for which the company will fly a minimum of eight missions to the International Space Station through 2024. Launch pad modifications in 2019 made it possible to accommodate the loading of time-sensitive experiments into the Cygnus spacecraft up to 24 hours before liftoff, shortening the previous four-day pre-loading requirement. This is the fourth official mission to use this late loading capability, which has made the facility eligible for missions that include life science investigations in the payload.

Last year marked 25 years since the Virginia General Assembly established Virginia Space Flight as a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the 75th anniversary of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Wallops Flight Facility. Twenty successful missions have launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. 

Virginia Space owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), the MARS Payload Processing Facility, and the MARS Unmanned Systems Test Range. The facilities are all located on the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where their mission is to provide low-cost, safe, reliable, and “schedule-friendly” access to space and secure facilities for testing unmanned vehicles for integration into the National Air Space. Virginia continues to play a key role in national security and assured access to space, as one of only four states in the United States hosting a spaceport licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to launch spacecraft into orbit or on interplanetary trajectories. For more information, visit vaspace.org.

Lawmakers kill bill calling for transparency in redistricting commission

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate killed a House proposal to expand access to the commonwealth’s new redistricting commission and help make the process more transparent and democratic. 

House Bill 2082, patroned by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would have required the redistricting commission meetings to be advertised and accessible to the public. The commission will draw the commonwealth’s electoral districts every 10 years. The General Assembly previously drew the districts.

The bill was passed by indefinitely in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee after passing the House with a 55-41 vote. 

“During the debates on the commission, I kept saying ‘There’s no transparency here, there’s no transparency,’” Levine said. “Well, there wasn’t, and there isn’t. Without my legislation, the commission can meet in a dark room.”

The law already requires the commission to allow public comment at meetings, but Levine’s bill called for the meetings to be more widely advertised and in multiple languages. 

Levine said that one of the most important parts of the bill is that it allowed people to comment on the district maps after they are drawn, not just before. The bill required that maps be posted on the commission’s website and three public comment periods be held prior to voting.

People are more likely to have opinions once they see the practical impact of a district map, he said.

“You might not care before, and then you look at the map and they’ve split your community right down the middle,” Levine said. 

 The bill also would have prohibited the Supreme Court of Virginia, which has the authority to decide districts if the commission can’t come to an agreement, from meeting in private. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission has been meeting virtually. Eight legislators and eight private citizens serve on the commission, split evenly between the two major political parties. For a map to be approved, 15 of the members would have to vote yes, Levine said. If two or more commission members voted against the map, the decision would go to the Supreme Court, according to Levine. The Court also becomes involved if the state legislature rejects the maps.

Levine said that the redistricting court meetings should be publicly accessible, because the Supreme Court would be acting like a legislature.

“I would’ve shined a bright light on the process, and it would have made the commission better,” Levine said. 

Virginians voted to establish the commission during a ballot measure in the November general election, where it won with 66% of the vote.

“It doesn’t make it perfect,” Levine said. “I recognize that Virginians voted for it, but I want to make it better.”

Opponents of Levine’s bill believed that the Supreme Court should have the right to meet privately. Republican members of the Voting Rights subcommittee abstained from voting on the bill, then voted against the substitute version of the bill. The vote that killed the bill in the Senate, however, had both Democrats and Republicans voting against it. 

During the House Privileges and Elections committee meeting on Feb. 3, opponents of the bill expressed concerns about whether it would go into effect in a timely manner, as well as concerns about whether the Supreme Court should be able to meet in private.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, asked whether the bill would have an impact on the 2021 district maps, because it would not have gone into effect until July 1. A public commenter asked whether the bill raised “constitutional issues” because it prevents the Supreme Court from deliberating in private. 

“Both opponents and supporters of the bill agree that we need transparency,” Levine said during the meeting.

Members of several advocacy groups spoke in support of the bill during the meeting, including redistricting coordinator Erin Corbett of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports left-of-center causes.

“We believe that the newly-developed redistricting commission should work to be accessible and transparent,” Corbett said. “With this legislation, we can better ensure language access, public comment, and inclusivity as we move through the process of redistricting in Virginia.”

A provision in the bill, which was taken out during subcommittee hearings, would not have counted prisoners from outside of the commonwealth as Virginia residents. Virginians who are imprisoned in Virginia have been counted as residents of their home districts, but Levine’s attempt to extend this to non-Virginians imprisoned in Virginia was unsuccessful. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia General Assembly advances bill to modernize HIV laws

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly advanced a bill this week that lawmakers say will modernize Virginia’s current HIV laws. The amended measure has passed both chambers, but lawmakers must now accept or work out differences in the bill. 

Senate Bill 1138, introduced by Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also removes a law that prohibits the donation of blood and organs by people with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A 21-17 vote along party lines pushed the bill out of the Senate earlier this month. The House of Delegates passed the bill Friday in a 56-44 vote. 

The bill repeals a law that makes it a felony for HIV-positive people to sell or donate blood, body fluids, organs and tissues. Donors must be in compliance with the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act. This state legislation does not apply to national organizations such as the American Red Cross. The organization implements FDA guidelines that require men who have sex with men to defer from sexual intercourse for three months before donating blood. 

The measure also removes HIV, AIDS, syphilis and hepatitis B from the list of infectious biological substances under the current infected sexual battery law, opting to use the language “sexually transmitted infection.” The crime is punishable by a Class 6 felony, which carries a punishment of no more than five years in prison or a $2,500 fine. In 2019 and 2020, three offenders were convicted of such crimes, according to data provided in the impact statement by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. The Senate voted to lower the penalty from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor. 

Opponents of the bill spoke against reducing the penalty for such crimes. The House vote Friday included an amendment to keep the Class 6 felony punishment.

The bill adds language that HIV will not be included in the current statute as an infectious biological substance. It is a Class 5 felony to cause malicious injury by means of an infectious biological substance. The offense is punishable by five to 30 years in prison. 

McClellan said current HIV laws put in place during the 1980s AIDS epidemic have proven ineffective from a public health perspective. She said they are counterproductive and were implemented years ago tof receive federal funding.

“There are other laws that could be used to criminalize intentionally infecting someone with anything,” McClellan said. “There’s no need to specifically target and single out for HIV-positive status.”

LGBTQ and HIV advocacy groups hope the bill will end the stigma attached to HIV-positive people and also LGBTQ members who are not HIV positive.

The bill has the support of organizations such as the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Equality Virginia, the Zero Project, Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia, or ECHO VA, and the Positive Women’s Network - USA. 

Deirdre Johnson, co-founder of the ECHO VA Coalition, said the bill is a step in the right direction for ending the stigma against those with HIV. 

“One of the biggest things with the stigma has been the fear of knowing that you could be criminalized for having HIV, period, and then you know, of course, that deters people from getting tested,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that HIV stigma and criminalization have a profound effect on people of color and other marginalized communities who already experience health care inequity and mistrust. 

“Virginia is for lovers and I really want us to encompass that slogan, including people living with HIV and a perceived risk for HIV,” Johnson said

Cedric Pulliam, co-founder of ECHO VA, said lawmakers in the 1980s and 1990s saw HIV as something the public needed to be protected from when it was and continues to be a public health concern. There is now a call for state legislators around the country to change HIV criminalization laws.

Pulliam said that national agencies are reaching out to state legislators to help undo prior initiatives that limit HIV prevention, treatment and services. 

“We need your help from the state to really, basically right this wrong that we created decades ago,” Pulliam said of the agency outreach.

Pulliam called the move to decriminalize health status a “liberation” for those living with HIV because they would no longer have a target on their back. He also said that laws specifically target people with HIV. In Virginia, syphilis and hepatitis also are criminalized but other chronic illnesses and diseases are not, he said.

Virginia is currently one of 37 states as of 2020 that have HIV discriminatory laws, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If the federal government has really been calling for states to make this change, it's time for Virginia to be one of the next and not be, you know, the last,” Pulliam said.

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia Moves Closer to Ban Plastic Foam Containers

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation.

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having (polystyrene) in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these (polystyrene) containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lostmore than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives.

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversedor delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report.

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 reportin the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegradesslowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it's the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager.

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it's a statewide change, that's kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it's driving demand for the product up and costs down.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Edward C. Velvin, Jr.

Dates

Graveside Services

11 a.m. Saturday, February 20

GReensville Memorial Cemetery
1250 Skippers Road
Emporia, Virginia

 

Edward C. Velvin, Jr., 78, passed away Wednesday, February 17, 2021. He served his country as a member of the National Guard and retired from the Army Reserve and also retired from the U.S. Postal Service. He was a longtime member of Greensville Volunteer Fire Department as well as Greensville Volunteer Rescue Squad. He was a longtime member of Adams Grove Baptist Church where he served in many capacities.

Mr. Velvin is survived by his wife, Sally G. Velvin; son Chris Velvin (Audrey); daughter, Carol Grizzard (Carl); six grandchildren, Brandon Grizzard (Samantha), David Grizzard (JoJo), Megan Wilson (Josh), Chris Velvin, Jr., Dawn Hibbard and Brooke Velvin; 12 great-grandchildren; two sisters, Jean Joyner, Mary Pinner; a brother, Bobby Velvin and a number of nieces and nephews.

The funeral service will be held graveside 11 a.m. Saturday, February 20 at Greensville Memorial Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made to Adams Grove Baptist Church, 24407 Adams Grove Rd., Emporia, Virginia 23847.

Online condolences may be shared with the family at ww.owenfh.com.

Virginia lanza el sitio web central de preinscripción para la vacuna COVID-19

Vaccinate.Virginia.gov‘ ahora en vivo; Línea directa estatal que será lanzada el miércoles

(RICHMOND, Va.) – El Departamento de Salud de Virginia lanzó hoy un nuevo sitio web centralizado que permite a los residentes de Virginia preinscribirse fácilmente para la vacuna COVID-19. Este sitio web de “ventanilla única” permite que las personas se preinscriban en línea, verifiquen que estén preinscritas y accedan a información adicional sobre la implementación de la vacunación en Virginia.

Los residentes de Virginia que se han preinscrito previamente a través de su distrito de salud local se han importado automáticamente al nuevo sistema y no necesitan preinscribirse nuevamente. La migración de datos continúa durante la semana y pueden pasar varios días hasta que su nombre aparezca en el sistema centralizado. Todos los que se hayan inscrito anteriormente todavía están en la lista y su estado no se verá afectado.

El Departamento de Salud de Virginia espera millones de visitas particulares al sitio el martes y los equipos de TI abordarán los componentes técnicos según sea necesario a lo largo del día. Cualquier persona que no pueda comunicarse de inmediato debe intentarlo de nuevo.

Reconociendo que muchos residentes de Virginia se sienten incómodos o no pueden preinscribirse en línea, el Departamento de Salud de Virginia también lanzará un número de línea directa asociado el miércoles 17 de febrero. El gobernador Northam proporcionará información adicional sobre esta línea directa, además de las nuevas herramientas en línea, en una conferencia de prensa el miércoles 17 de febrero.

Debido a los límites tecnológicos del sistema nacional de citas de CVS Pharmacy, los residentes de Virginia deben seguir inscribiéndose para las citas de CVS a través del sitio web de CVS Pharmacy. El Departamento de Salud de Fairfax ha optado por mantener su formulario de inscripción local como uno de los pocos distritos de salud que no forma parte del sistema de salud del estado de Virginia. Los residentes de Virginia elegibles para la vacunación según donde viven o trabajan en el condado de Fairfax deben preinscribirse para las vacunas en el sitio web del Departamento de Salud del Condado de Fairfax.

Virginia ha vacunado a más del 12 % de la población con al menos una dosis. La demanda de la vacuna COVID-19 actualmente supera con creces la oferta, y se espera que tarde varios meses en llegar a todos los que deseen vacunarse. Virginia está dando prioridad a las personas que califican para la Fase 1B: personas de 65 años o más; trabajadores esenciales de primera línea; aquellos que viven y trabajan en refugios para personas sin hogar, instalaciones correccionales y campos de trabajadores migrantes; e individuos con condiciones médicas de alto riesgo.

Governor Northam Announces Second Annual ‘Black History Month Historical Marker Contest’

Submission period open from February 15 to March 15

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today invited Virginia students, educators, and families to participate in the second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest.

This initiative offers opportunities to learn about African Americans who have made important contributions to Virginia history, provides teachers with resources to guide history discussions, and includes a contest where students can submit ideas for new historical markers to the Department of Historical Resources. 

“This contest is a new Virginia tradition, and one of many ways we are working to tell a more accurate and comprehensive story of our shared past,” said Governor Northam. “Historical markers are a unique and visible way to educate the public about our history, and we need to do a better job of recognizing Black Virginians who have played prominent roles in areas like improving education, championing equal justice, deepening faith communities, and advancing science, technology, and medicine throughout our history. I remain committed elevating initiatives like this one that help make our Commonwealth a more just, compassionate, and culturally rich place to live, work, visit, and learn.”

Virginia’s Historical Highway Marker Program began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. Route 1, and is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Managed by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Historic Resources, the program is an effort to recognize and chronicle events, accomplishments, sacrifices, and personalities of historic importance to Virginia’s story. The signs are known for their black lettering against a silver background and their distinctive shape.

“These markers bring Virginia history to a large audience, including people who may not have another occasion to learn about Virginia history,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “Virginia’s markers bear the state seal, so they should provide a clear indication of our values. This annual contest helps ensure Virginia’s historical markers more equitably represent Virginia’s diversity.” 

Virginia has erected more than 2,600 markers along its roadways, but as of January 2020, only 350 markers honored African Americans. Last year on Juneteenth, Governor Northam announced 20 newly approved state historical highway markers addressing topics of national, state, and regional significance to African American history in the Commonwealth. Ten of the markers were submitted by Virginia students through Governor Northam’s inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest and included civil rights pioneer Barbara Rose Johns, entrepreneur Maggie Lena Walker, Sergeant William H. Carney, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

“As a classroom teacher, I believe that Black history is the cornerstone to build a better tomorrow,” said Dr. Shavonne Ruffin, a Northampton County Public Schools elementary school teacher. “The Governor’s Black History Month Historical Marker Contest allowed my students an opportunity to discover the stories of influential African Americans in Virginia. It was remarkable to watch them light up as they learned about heroes like Katherine Johnson, and to witness their joy when they found out that due to their efforts, her important contributions would be forever memorialized through a historical marker.”  

“I liked the contest because I got to learn about amazing people who inspire me to be a better kid and make a difference in my community,” said Javier Rodriguez-Aragon, a fifth grader in Fairfax County Public Schools. “Last year, I nominated William H. Carney and Barbara Johns for Virginia historical markers so that more people can learn their stories and be inspired.”

Learn more about the winning markers submitted by students in the inaugural Black History Month Historical Marker Contest here.

The contest web page includes a lesson plan and classroom activity guide developed by Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Janice Underwood, which is designed to help teachers and administrators navigate these discussions thoughtfully and inclusively and can be used for in-person or virtual classroom settings.

“As an educator, I believe deeply in the power of learning through the exploration of local history,” said Dr. Underwood. “Since 1619, stories of incredible African American Virginians have frequently been ignored. This contest allows for students to discover local heroes and provides students an opportunity for civic engagement inviting them to suggest new historical markers.”  

Governor Northam’s Black History Month Historical Marker Contest begins on Monday, February 15, and suggested historical markers must be submitted by Monday, March 15. The Department of Historical Resources will review all submissions and will select the top five, in consultation with Governor Northam and members of his Cabinet.  

“As the leaders of tomorrow, it is critically important for students to develop a deeper understanding of Black history in the Commonwealth,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “The Black History Month Historical Marker Contest provides students and educators alike an opportunity to celebrate the incredible contributions of Black and brown Virginians. I invite all educators and students to help us tell a more complete Virginia story through participating in this contest.”

More information about how to participate in the second annual Black History Month Historical Marker Contest is available here.

 

Lawmakers kill bill requiring officers render aid, report wrongdoing

By Sarah Elson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Senate committee recently killed a bill intended to minimize police misconduct and incentivize accountability among law enforcement. 

House Bill 1948, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, required law enforcement officers to report misconduct by fellow officers. Another part of the measure, which some opponents called too subjective, was that on-duty officers provide aid as circumstances objectively permitted to someone suffering a life-threatening condition, or serious bodily injury. 

The bill also expanded the current definition of bias-based profiling, which is prohibited in Virginia, to include gender identity and sexual orientation. Bias-based profiling is when a police officer takes action solely based on an individual’s real or perceived race, age, ethnicity or gender. 

The measure passed the Virginia House of Delegates last month on a 57-42 vote and the Senate Judiciary committee killed the bill this week on a 9-6 vote. Levine introduced a similar bill last year that also failed in the Senate.

“I call HB 1948 my good apple bill because it separates the vast majority of law enforcement that are good apples from the few bad apples that are not,” Levine said when the bill was before the House. 

Dominique Martin, a policy analyst for New Virginia Majority, said before a House panel that the bill would establish a mechanism to create accountability among officers. 

“One of the major themes when discussing long lasting approaches to police reform is the need for change at the institutional level,” Martin said. “One aspect is addressing organizational culture. It incentivizes a more accountable culture amongst law enforcement.”

Vee Lamneck, executive director for Equality Virginia, spoke in favor of the bill.

“LGBT people, especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous LGBT people, are more likely to be victimized by discriminatory police practices,” Lamneck said. “Transgender women are six times more likely to endure police violence and Black transgender women experience even higher rates of being antagonized and criminalized by police.”

HB 1250, also known as The Community Policing Act, took effect on July 1, 2020. The law prohibits police from engaging in bias-based profiling while on duty.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, expressed concern with the part of Levine’s bill that required officers to provide aid to someone with a life threatening injury.

“The concern is that a lot of times in situations where you don't know whether life-saving aid is necessarily required in that instance, the outcome may be that someone is injured more than is immediately recognizable,” Schrad said.

Schrad said the bill was a response to events such as the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in police custody. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder and will stand trial in March. The three other officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, will stand trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

 “It's the George Floyd response that the officers there did not render aid,” Schrad said.

John Clair, police chief for the Marion Police Department, in Smyth County, agreed with Schrad.

“We're police officers, medical aid should be left to medical professionals,” Clair said. 

The requirement to render aid is not in the state code and though it is a requirement already for many districts, there is a need for consistency across the commonwealth, Levine said.

“I’m confident that the vast majority would do so anyway,” Levine said. “This makes it a matter of policy; it will be taught in training.”

Several bills centered on police reform have died during this General Assembly session. A measure by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, would have established data collection on use of force incidents that would be reported to the superintendent of Virginia State Police. HB 2045 and SB 1440 would have eliminated qualified immunity. The bills would have made it easier for plaintiffs to sue police officers in civil court for depriving the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights. Both bills were struck down within the last two weeks. A similar measure from Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who patroned HB 2045, was also struck down during the 2020 General Assembly special session. 

Schrad said Levine’s bill and the qualified immunity bill would have taken away legal protections and created a strict liability for police officers. Opponents of the qualified immunity bills also said there would be a negative impact on hiring new police recruits.

“These kinds of issues all taken together create such a standard of both strict liability, and no protections for law enforcement officers that we’re really throwing them under the bus,” Schrad said.

Levine said his bill was both modest and large. 

 “It’s large because it really tries to make it clear there is no thin blue line, that the goal of law enforcement is to serve the public first and you should not be covering up bad acts, severe acts of wrongdoing, that’s not technical or minimal, by your fellow officer,” he said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Earldean Allen

April 22, 1939-February 9, 2021

Graveside Celebration of Life

2 p.m. Saturday, February 20, 2021

Independence United Methodist Church Cemetery
4438 Independence Church Road
Emporia, Virginia

Earldean Allen, 81, of Emporia, passed away Tuesday, February 9, 2021 in a local hospital after a brief battle with complications of Covid-19.

She was born April 22, 1939 to John and Gladys Nowell Newsome in Halifax County, NC. Earldean was married to Sonny Allen and worked as a textile worker. She loved the Lord and was a faithful member of Fountain Grove Baptist Church in Emporia attending regularly as long as her health permitted. She loved her little dog, Lilly, gardening, sewing, hummingbirds, baseball and helping others. She was a loving sister, wife, mother, aunt and grandmother. Her family was the center of her world and she was a friend that will be truly missed.

Earldean was preceded in death by her grandparents, James and Floy Nowell; her parents and her husband of 48 years; her sister, Elaine; stepdaughter, Teresa and stepson, Thomas Allen.

She is survived by her daughter, Melissa Allen of Emporia; brother, Haywood Nelson of Halifax, NC; aunt, Myrtle Nowell of Weldon, NC; stepdaughter, Wanda of Pennsylvania; son-in-law, Thomas Edward Allen of Emporia; sisters-in-law, Dorothy, Rosa, and Jean. all of Emporia; and numerous nieces, nephews; great-nieces and nephews; cousins, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A celebration of life service will be held graveside 2 p.m. Saturday, February 20 at Independence United Methodist Church Cemetery on Independence Church Rd, Emporia, Virginia officiated by Pastor Tom Spizzirri. Due to circumstances of the pandemic, masks and social distancing will be followed.

Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owenfh.com

 

Virginia Department of Health Launches COVIDWISE Express as Additional Tool to Boost Exposure Notifications

New additional platform informs iPhone users of potential exposure to COVID-19 without having to download an app. 

(Richmond, Va.) — Virginia is making it even easier for people to be notified of potential exposures to COVID-19. Last week, the Virginia Department of Health launched COVIDWISE Express, a new app-less exposure notifications technology for iPhone users in Virginia who do not already have the COVIDWISE app installed.  Anonymously sending and receiving exposure notifications has never been easier. Since launching, COVIDWISE Express already has more than 504,000 users in Virginia.

COVIDWISE Express, which is available in both English and Spanish, will work solely on iPhones that have not installed COVIDWISE. When an iPhone user enables Exposure Logging on their smartphone, their device will automatically use the app-less experience, if the user hasn’t already downloaded COVIDWISE.  The Express version of COVIDWISE works by communicating with a test verification server and the national key server at specific times, all while protecting the user’s privacy and location data. Android users, and iPhone users who already have the app, will continue to use COVIDWISE. 

“COVIDWISE Express provides an additional option to help Virginia expand its existing exposure notifications and contact tracing operations without compromising user privacy or security,” said State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, MD, MA. “This technology will notify you if you’ve likely been exposed to another smartphone user who anonymously shared a positive COVID-19 test result. Knowing your exposure history allows you to self-quarantine effectively, seek timely medical attention, and reduce risk of exposing others.”

COVIDWISE launched on August 5, 2020 and has surpassed 994,000 downloads, making it one of the two most downloaded exposure notification apps in the United States. The free app, which is available through the App Store and the Google Play Store, alerts users if they have been in close contact with an individual who anonymously reported their positive COVID-19 test result. 

On December 10, COVIDWISE began using the Association of Public Health Laboratories’ National Key Server, which allows COVIDWISE to work across D.C. and 19 states that have similar exposure notifications systems.  This helps to ensure users receive exposure notifications, if exposed to persons from a participating jurisdiction. 

VDH remains steadfastly committed to COVIDWISE privacy protections and continued adoption and widespread use of exposure notifications as a tool to support the public’s health and reduce the spread of the virus.

To learn more about COVIDWISE options, or to download the app, visit www.covidwise.org.

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

McEachin to VDH on COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Concerns: “These Issues Must be Addressed Immediately”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-04) sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) regarding VDH's COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration efforts throughout the commonwealth. The letter commended VDH for its ongoing work, but also advocated for improvements to its coordination efforts in rural communities and communities of color.

McEachin noted that the Crater Health District, located in his congressional district, has received the sixth-lowest amount of vaccines of Virginia’s 35 health districts and cited similar concerns with vaccine administration in communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. In Richmond, there were initially no vaccination sites in the predominantly Black and Latino communities south of the James River.

“While I appreciate the work you have already done and will continue to do, it is clear that these issues must be addressed immediately,” said McEachin. “Every vaccine that goes unused could save a grandparent’s life, a teacher’s life, or a frontline worker’s life – and we must do everything in our power to protect as many Virginians as possible. With new variants of the virus and the potential for case numbers to continue to rise, families, seniors, teachers, and frontline health workers across the Commonwealth are understandably terrified, and we must work to instill confidence in our state and local departments of health.”

McEachin’s letter to the Virginia Department of Health can be found here.

Winter Storm Warnings = Winter Weather Driving Advisories & Tips

With winter storm watches and warnings starting today Thursday (Feb. 11) and lasting through late Friday (Feb. 12) for much of Virginia, the Virginia State Police is encouraging Virginians to plan ahead so you can avoid having to travel during inclement conditions. The National Weather Service is calling for accumulations of snow, as well as combinations of rain and sleet in the coming hours. VDOT is working to pre-treat the highways, but slippery and dangerous conditions are still anticipated.

The Virginia State Police is already preparing for the winter weather and will have all available troopers on patrol in order to respond as quickly as possible to traffic crashes, emergencies and disabled motorists.

If you must travel during the storm:

  • Know Before You Go! Before heading out, check Virginia road conditions at www.511virginia.org or download the VDOT 511 app.
  • Clear ALL snow and ice from the roof, trunk, hood and windows of your vehicle - car, SUV, minivan, pickup truck, commercial vehicle - before you travel.
  • Use your headlights - in rain AND snow.
  • Drive for conditions - slow your speed and increase your traveling distance between the vehicle ahead of you.
  • Buckle Up.
  • Avoid distractions - put down the phone.
  • Do not call 911 or #77 for road conditions.

Bill to reduce felony drug possession charges dies in subcommittee

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers hoped to advance a bill that would eliminate felony drug possession charges and shift a focus to treatment, not punishment, of substance abuse. The measure had bipartisan support and backing from many commonwealth attorneys’ and lawyers around the state, but it died in a House subcommittee. 

Anyone found in possession of controlled substances would face misdemeanor charges under House Bill 2303 introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. The bill would also amend the conditions set for probation under the current first offender statute, which allows drug possession charges to be dismissed if certain conditions are met.

A person caught with the possession of a schedule I or schedule II controlled substances under the current law could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison. That includes drugs with high potential for abuse and dependence such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Possession of items with drug residue on them can also lead to felony charges, such as a crack pipe or heroin needle.

Under Virginia’s first offender statute individuals with no previous narcotic criminal record may get their case dismissed if they successfully pass a treatment program, make efforts to maintain employment, complete community service and remain drug and alcohol free during probation. 

Hudson proposed changes to the statute that requires people to continue being tested but not that they continue to test negative. Hudson said that is in recognition “that relapse is a part of recovery from any drug abuse.”

Hudson said that incarcerating someone for drug possession is not the correct way to treat substance abuse.

“It’s a concrete step we can take this year to reduce the harmful consequences of prolonged incarceration as an ineffective deterrent and treatment strategy for substance abuse,” Hudson said during the House Courts of Justice subcommittee hearing for the bill. 

Nathan Mitchell, community outreach and advocacy coordinator at the Henrico County-based McShin Foundation, said the bill is the first step toward reforming the criminal justice system. The McShin Foundation offers multiple programs for those in recovery from substance abuse.

Mitchell, a former felon , said the current system can be damaging to people who suffer from the disease of addiction.

“I became a felon,” Mitchell said. “And with that all of my civil rights, my ability to vote, my ability to run for office, serve on a jury, have a gun were all taken away with one fell swoop.” 

Anyone charged with a felony in Virginia loses civil rights such as the right to vote, hold office, and serve as a juror. The bill would remove felony violations of drug possession from the definition of barrier crimes related to criminal history checks for employment and a range of volunteer opportunities. 

“Health care problems require health care solutions and HB 2303 is a good first step at recognizing that drugs and substance use disorder are not a criminal justice issue,” Mitchell said. “They are in fact, a health care issue.”

Misdemeanor possession is already employed in many states such as Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi and also neighboring states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

 “It is a drug reform that has bipartisan support coast to coast,” Hudson said.

South Carolina and Iowa have enacted similar legislation and utilize escalating penalties where the punishment increases with every subsequent offense, according to Attorney Steve Mutnick, who serves as General Assembly counsel. In Iowa, a first time drug possession offense is a one-year misdemeanor. However, the third offense is a five-year felony. 

“Continuing to accelerate the penalty and incarcerate someone for longer doesn’t seem to really get at the root cause,” Hudson said.

Norfolk Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi testified in support of the bill on behalf of six commonwealth’s attorneys from across the state.

“Substance abuse disorder is a matter of public health and that the primary focus of dealing with a public health issue should be the public health system,” Fatehi said. 

Though the legislation marks a departure from the state’s approach to drug possession, Fatehi said the measure would bring Virginia in alignment with neighboring states and the federal system. 

Fatehi said the only concern they had was directly addressed by the language in a budget amendment submitted by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield. The budget amendment would divert money saved from less incarceration due to reduced felony drug possession charges into treatment programs. Coyner said that jails report there aren’t enough treatment service programs.

“This is a rare instance where we can both be more just and create a significant cost savings for the people of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fatehi said.

Supporters of the bill pointed out that the legislation was not decriminalizing or legalizing drugs or condoning the use of hard drugs. The measure also would not reduce felony charges for people caught distributing drugs or possessing drugs to distribute. 

“There is no simple possession that is worth more than 12 months in jail,” Fatehi said.

Richard Johnson, with the Virginia Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he lost his nephew to a heroin addiction. 

“Instead of policy wise trying to teach people with addiction a lesson, this legislation tries to solve the problem,” Johnson said.

The panel never picked Hudson’s bill back up before crossover day, which is when each chamber must complete voting on any bills that will be advanced to the other chamber. Delegates said the bill was important, but there was concern about having enough time to secure the funding needed to redirect into treatment. A substitute was submitted on Feb. 3 but never heard before the subcommittee.

Hudson said the bill addressed the most immediate harms. 

“We will go another year of marking another wave of Virginias with this stamp that bears life long consequences,” she said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

Virginia Legislators Kill Special Education Bill

By Katharine DeRosa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia lawmakers killed a proposal that would allow some special education students another year of instruction because of the struggles of virtual learning caused by COVID-19.

House Bill 2277 proposed that high school students with special needs who are set to graduate in the 2021 school year and who are 22 years old after Sept. 30, 2020, be allowed to take an extra year and graduate in 2022. Students who are younger than 22 are automatically eligible for another year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

“While other students might have more time to make up whatever was lost because of COVID-19, the kids that were going to age out this year will never get that chance,” said Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville.

Virginia students with disabilities age out of the school system at 22 years old, according to the VDOE. Those 22 and older are dependent on the bill if they want to attend another year of high school.

Each student with disabilities in Virginia develops an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, throughout their education. The VDOE provides tips for helping parents and teachers navigate a student's IEP amid virtual learning. Tips include practicing communication skills, hands-on, non-digital activities and documenting progress for a teacher’s review.

Special education students have had a difficult time thriving in the virtual learning environment, Bell said during the bill’s subcommittee meeting. He said the final year of school is crucial to prepare special needs students for post high school life.

“It is heartbreaking to think what those kids are going to have to do to manage,” Bell said.

The legislation didn’t make it past crossover day, when bills must pass the chamber in which they originated. 

“The bill is simple,” Bell told legislators during the bill’s hearing. “It’s not easy, but it’s simple.”

Bell said he introduced the measure because he has a personal attachment to special education. His 18-year-old son attends the Virginia Institute of Autism in Charlottesville. 

Bell said he wants the change to be made, whether through this legislation or another method. 

“If for some reason it's easier or better to do it, just through the budget that's fine too,” Bell said.

Bell said he was not surprised the bill didn’t pass because of how much money it would cost to implement. The bill’s passage would require an additional 1,000 students to be served, which would cost $5 million during the 2022 fiscal year, according to the legislation’s impact statement. 

Bell introduced an amendment to the state budget that adds $5 million to public education. The money would provide free public education as deemed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The proposed budget for state education assistance in 2022 is $7.8 billion.

“I’m hopeful that they will see this as a priority,” Bell said. 

The bill passed out of committee, but it died in appropriations. 

There are almost 168,000 students with disabilities currently enrolled in Virginia public schools, according to the VDOE. In the 2019-2020 school year, 84 students with disabilities were over the age of 22, according to the VDOE. A total of $12,111 is spent per public school student each year, VDOE stated on its website.

Renesha Parks, director of exceptional education at Richmond Public Schools, said HB 2277 has pros and cons. 

“I do feel that because of their age, they probably should be with age-appropriate peers,” Parks said.

Park said students would benefit from working with community partners instead of continuing in high school. The success of these students depends on public schools connecting them with resources as they enter adulthood, she said.

RPS works with Resources for Independent Living, the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence, the VCU Center on Transition Innovation and SOAR365, Parks said. The organizations offer a variety of services, including working with adults to set up plans for higher education, job training, employment and independent living. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

House Advances Legislation Recognizing Water as Human Right

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- The city of Petersburg made headlines last year when the city disconnected water service to non-paying residents preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Del. Lashrecse D. Aird, D-Petersburg, criticized the city’s action as “inhumane” and the dispute reached Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, who in a letter ordered the city to restore service to 150 residences that still didn’t have water last May.

Aird introduced House Joint Resolution 538 to ensure no person in the commonwealth is denied access to water. The measure recognizes the access to clean, affordable water as a human right.

The Virginia House of Delegates advanced the measure in a 61-33 vote mainly along party lines, with six Republicans voting for the bill. The resolution now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.

Aird said the resolution lays out the foundation for future substantial policies. If passed, the next step will be turning the legislative recommendations into concrete legislation.

 “We can begin to frame policies that really make it so that we're humanizing hardship,” Aird said. “And we're taking an approach that is trying to put the safety and wellness of people first.”

The measure calls for a statewide water affordability program and decriminalizing water utilities’ nonpayments. It stresses that state agencies implement strategies to limit water contamination and pollution by residents and industries.

Aird said the resolution developed after meeting with families who had their water disconnected or are actively disconnected from water service. She experienced challenges to water access first hand growing up. 

“Unless you've actually lived that life and you've experienced it, you don't really fully recognize how much of a hardship this is,” Aird said. “And so for me, it's personal. It’s deeply a matter and sense of urgency.”

Numerous studies show race and socioeconomic disparities in water affordability and accessibility. Racist discriminatory practices, such as residential segregation, have long-lasting effects on Black communities’ water access and infrastructure, according to a 2019 report by the Thurgood Marshall Institute at The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. 

Aird also sponsors HJR 537, which declares racism a public health crisis. She said social determinants of health can be found everywhere, from schools and hospitals to water access.

A U.S. Water Alliance report stated Black and Latino households are nearly twice as likely to not have complete indoor plumbing compared to white households. That number soars to 19 times as likely for Native American households.

Many communities in the Central Appalachian region, which include parts of Southwest Virginia, are without basic water and sewer infrastructure, according to a 2011 United Nations report. Two-thirds of homes in West Virginia and Southern Virginia discharged raw sewage, which is water containing excrement and debris, directly into streams and ground surfaces.

Oliver wrote in his letter that Petersburg residents struggle with poverty and obesity, factors that increase risks of severe illness from the pandemic. He said people need running water to keep a sanitary residence and to reduce risks from the pandemic.

Moratoria on utility disconnections, such as water, reduce COVID-19 infections by nearly 4% and mortality rate by more than 7%, according to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Jorge Aguilar, southern region director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental organization, said safe access to water is essential to human health and the state must invest in upgrading water infrastructures.

“This declaration of water as a human right is a good first step in signaling that the state is committing itself to tackling the long term challenges of the water crisis,” Aguilar said, “and ensuring that Virginians have access to clean safe, affordable water now and in the future.”

If the bill is enacted, Virginia will join states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California, to recognize water as a human right. 

The federal government does not recognize access to water as a human right, but has drinking water regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.

Rev. Faith Harris, interim co-director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, a state affiliate of the environmental organization, Interfaith Power & Light, said the resolution can open up further discussion and legislation among lawmakers on Virginia’s water access crisis. 

“People don't think about how important access to water is, and we need to put this on the front burner for all of us,” Harris said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

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