By Brandon Martin
Local leaders in education met with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Alexandria, at New College Institute (NCI) on Oct. 29 to discuss ways to improve the federal response to schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
Representatives from NCI, Patrick Henry Community College, Henry County and Martinsville school divisions shared some of their concerns.
Greg Hodges, vice-president at PHCC, said that “there seems to be a lack of clarity and consistency as to what those dollars can be allocated for.” He added the answers vary when he seeks clarification during webinars, “depending on who is facilitating that conversation.”
Additionally, Hodges noted the problem with broadband equity in the areas covered by PHCC with Patrick County being the greatest affected.
“You know how rural Patrick County is,” and with the introduction of virtual instruction, it has “created a whole new system of equity gaps that we need to address,” Hodges said.
Martinsville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Zebedee “Zeb” Talley Jr. said the ongoing needs of schools persist in the background of the pandemic.
“One of the things that our representatives aren’t looking at is our old, antiquated buildings,” Talley said. “They are still in need of repair and updates.”
Schools also could use more funding for transportation.
“If you are going to really abide by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) rules, you can’t have five buses or 20 buses,” Talley said. “It really is a problem when you don’t have the number of buses to make the runs. Most school divisions have buses that are 20-25 years old. All of this hit prior to the pandemic so those problems are exacerbated afterwards.”
Personnel also is an issue, he said.
“A majority of school bus drivers are retired people,” he said. “Most of them are at that critical age where the virus hits the most.”
Henry County Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said the combination of a lack of teachers and the additional duties with hybrid instruction has been stressful.
While other jobs could easily allow for teleworking, teachers are left in a bind because there is nobody “to watch the children,” Strayer said.
If a teacher must quarantine at home, the schools are required to have a substitute monitor the classroom. “With a sub shortage, we don’t have anyone,” Strayer said. “It’s very difficult to open schools when you don’t have the personnel.”
Even with federal regulations removed to allow for retired teachers and volunteers to assist, Strayer said the impact of the virus on that age group poses a problem.
“Our teachers are older and our substitutes are often much older,” Strayer said. “Some of them are afraid to come in right now.”
Karen Jackson, interim executive director of NCI, said “remote work is a reality now. Everything works on broadband and that’s fine.” However, she asked for “a way to change Opportunity Zones or change some of the economic redevelopment centers to make these more remote jobs more available.”
Businesses locating in Opportunity Zones may qualify for tax incentives, Warner said.
“It was a really interesting idea but so far it has not been used the right way. It was supposed to be for startup businesses but ended up being mostly real estate tax breaks. You’ve got a distressed neighborhood and at the end of the neighborhood, they’d build a new shopping center. That was not the goal,” Warner said.
“If we can give incentives to move to rural areas, then you have a chance of changing the whole dynamic,” Jackson said.
“If we don’t do another big (stimulus) package, we are going to see the economy crater,” Warner said. “The difference between where the stock market has been and the economy on the ground, I’ve never seen as much of a difference.”
He noted that he has been frustrated with his Democrat colleagues during those negotiations.
“If you don’t get it all now, you can come back in January and do another package,” Warner said. “The idea that we would not provide additional assistance for the next couple of months would be a disaster. I even voted with Republicans last week to at least replenish the small businesses with what was called the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program).”
There are a number of items Warner would like to see in the next package. Some examples are $175 billion for K-12 schools and $47 billion for higher education.
In the next round of stimulus funding, Warner said that he would like to eliminate the requirement that localities must spend all of the money by Dec. 31.
“You really need the flexibility,” Warner said. “There isn’t a rational member of Congress that doesn’t realize that Dec. 31 needs to be waived. I’ll give you a 90 percent” promise.
Warner said that he believes that there is a bi-partisan desire to reach a deal on new funding.
“Regardless of who wins, let’s make an agreement that we don’t continue to kick the can (down the road),” Warner said. “I’m pretty optimistic. There is no economic reason to not do another package right now. The idea that you would wait till a new president would be devastating to the economy.”