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State leaders will not mandate an extended school year, but summer classes are encouraged

Virginia's education secretary said everyone who works at a school will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March.

ISLE OF WIGHT COUNTY, Va. — State leaders say they will not mandate an extended school year or summer classes for students, but it is something they’re encouraging school divisions to consider.

Virginia’s Secretary of Education Atif Qarni and First Lady Pam Northam said as much Wednesday while touring Windsor Elementary School in Isle of Wight County, to see how in-person learning is going.

As classrooms open up, teachers and students are now playing catch up and the idea of an extended school year is on the table.   

“We certainly will not mandate anything, but we have provided funds," Qarni said. 

He pointed to funding to the tune of $50 million in grants from the state, and billions from the federal government. 

“The school division has an option," he said. "They can do extended learning in any kind of format, whether it’s Saturday school, summer school, or year-round school options. They don’t have to.” 

Northam said virtual learning has had an impact on students’ grades and although summer learning isn’t mandated, it’s encouraged. 

“When we were looking at some of our scores coming in, literacy scores were down," she said. “The governor is encouraging every school district that’s able to be able to make sure that you’re able to do summer programming so we can get everybody ready by next fall."

Northam said she’s confident teachers can make up for any gaps in education, and get students back on track, now that children are back in the classroom.

“I fully feel we can do that and that’s where we channeling a lot of our funding now at a state and federal level," she said.

Qarni and Northam said they’re ready to support schools; making teachers a priority for vaccinations is one way, and funding is another. 

“We did put in a 5 percent salary increase for teachers and staff, this year," Qarni said. 

He said more than 80 percent of school teachers and staff have access to the COVID-19 vaccine and 67 percent have chosen to get their first dose.

"By end of March we expect that everybody who wants a vaccine that works in a school setting, would have had access," Qarni said.

At Windsor Elementary, pre-K through 3rd-grade students went back to school on a hybrid schedule in September. Last month, all students at Windsor were welcomed to return to in-person learning five days a week.

School officials say about 25 percent of students opted to continue virtual learning.

Qarni said the state is working to build confidence among parents and they’re optimistic about the future.

“Definitely come next academic year in the fall, I feel like we’ll be in a place where everybody will want to come back," he said.