RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said Virginia was doing a better job getting COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of Virginians.
A critical point now that COVID-19 variants have been identified in Virginia.
The governor also called on school systems across Virginia to be prepared to welcome students back to in-person learning.
He set a March 15 deadline for school systems to begin at least some in-person learning plans.
"We know that children learn better in classrooms and that going to school is vital for their social-emotional needs and for receiving critical services like meals," Governor Northam said. "It is also important for our youngest learners, students with disabilities, and those with limited access to technology who have struggled most with remote learning. By focusing on mitigation measures, we can provide our kids with safe and equitable learning environments."
Richmond Superintendent: 'We're still... processing all the details'
In Central Virginia, Hanover and some Chesterfield students have returned to classrooms. More Chesterfield students and Henrico students will return to classrooms later in February and early March.
The City of Richmond is the only school system that decided to stay virtual throughout the 2020-21 school year.
It was not immediately clear how Richmond Public Schools (RPS) planned to meet the governor's March 15 deadline.
"I don't know exactly what this means for RPS just yet, as we're still receiving and processing all the details," RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras wrote in an email to families. "I promise to follow up early next week once the School Board and I have had a chance to review everything."
School Board member Kenya Gibson said that teachers and school staffers "are not ready to return."
"I'm optimistic that a safe return is near -- but this is not the moment to pressure local governing bodies to prematurely force students and staff back into the classroom," Gibson wrote.
However, another RPS Board member voiced support for the Governor's announcement.
"I am grateful to the Governor for rightly recognizing that exclusively virtual has compounded problems and that it is time to get back to the classroom," said 4th District Board Member and Vice Chair Jonathan Young in a statement.
The March 15 deadline is also at odds with the current plan for Petersburg City Public Schools.
In January, the school board voted to remain virtual until at least April.
Education Secretary: 'School will not look the same'
State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver called in-person learning "critical to the current and future well-being of our children."
“VDH remains committed to supporting school districts in getting kids back into classrooms as we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and get Virginians vaccinated.”
Virginia Education Association President Dr. James J. Fedderman cautioned about "rushing the process and exposing our educators and students to risks we’ve been warned against even for Super Bowl parties."
"No one wants to be back in those buildings more than we do. We know that in-person instruction is the goal, and we believe that we are getting closer to being able to do that every day," Fedderman wrote. "However, the best way to move ahead is not to set an arbitrary date. Instead, we must keep our focus on ensuring that all school staff members have the opportunity to be vaccinated and that all necessary safety precautions and mitigation measures are in place, along with the resources to sustain them."
The governor also encouraged school districts to expand summer learning for students who need to catch up.
“For those who choose to return to in-person instruction, we know that school will not look the same as students remember it from past years,” Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said. "However, implementing evidence-based public health strategies will provide students who need it most the opportunity to have an in-person environment to learn and develop academically, socially, and emotionally."
Fedderman noted that Virginia schools "have always offered summer learning options to reinforce and enrich instruction."
"An expanded summer program, staffed by educators who choose to participate and are paid for their work, will help students and families counter potential learning losses," Fedderman said.