By Brandon Martin
During a press conference Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that all Virginia schools, both public and private, will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year.
The actions were included in Executive Order 53, which also put additional restrictions on public establishments, among them state mandated closing of non-essential businesses and those which cannot adhere to state mandated social distancing protocols.
Northam said that restaurants can remain open, but only for take-out and delivery.
Entertainment facilities were ordered to close down. Bowling alleys, theaters, gyms, and racetracks are among the examples named of businesses that will be affected by the mandate. Barber shops, massage parlors and spas were similarly closed because of the inability to practice social distancing.
“We are encouraging people to stay at home, but we also acknowledge people have to work, people have to go out and get supplies, whether it be at the grocery store or the pharmacy, etc. People have to go out, or should go out and walk around the neighborhood, to a park, etc. Anything we can do to stop gatherings of people is what we intend to do by giving these recommendations,” Northam said.
Non-essential retail businesses can remain open as long as they allow fewer than 10 customers, increase sanitizing procedures and maintain their social distancing.
“Essential services like grocery stores, health services, businesses and supply chains will remain open but they must adhere to social distancing and increased sanitizing procedures,” Northam said. The construction industry was also exempt from the ban.
He added that the measures would be in effect state-wide for at least 30 days, and emphasized that the main goal was to minimize the number of places where people gather in groups.
The governor empowered localities to decide the best way of enforcing the bans.
“Most people are trying their best to abide by the social distancing guideline, and we really haven’t had much problem with the enforcement aspect,” said Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry shortly before Northam made the announcement.
Monica Hatchett, director of Communications and Organizational Learning for Henry County Public Schools, said the school division would be working on a plan for instruction once they receive further guidance from the department of education (VDOE).
Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane said that the Virginia Department of Education will be working with schools on ways to test to determine whether students had learned the lessons properly.
“We will be offering numerous options from distance learning or remote learning, extending the school year next year, embedding some of that instruction into next year,” as some of the options being considered, officials said.
VDOE recently applied to have testing requirements waived from the federal government and Hatchett said “it is our hope that they will be approved.”
The announcement will affect the commencement ceremonies for this year’s graduating classes as well.
“At this time, we are under state orders for no gatherings larger than 10,” Hatchett said. “We will be working to find creative ways to support our students academically and socially, but we certainly have a lot of planning and re-planning to do over the coming weeks.”
The school systems are also looking at ways to enhance counselor services for their students.
Martinsville City Public Schools and Carlisle School are similarly waiting for further guidance from VDOE before announcing any further plans to address concerns over the closures.
Northam said “school closures are necessary to minimize the speed in which COVID-19 spreads and protect the capacity of our healthcare system.”
Northam said his team would be providing further guidance on what is categorized as essential or non-essential via his website, and again clarified that grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks would be considered essential.
Like other essential businesses, he said they “have a responsibility to practice social distancing recommendations (and) step up sanitizing practices on common surfaces.”
He also called on local communities, private daycares, community childcare partners and public schools to unite in an effort to provide child care services for the children of workers that are deemed essential.
Regarding what classifies as essential, Northam said “if someone were to come to the childcare center and say that they are essential that their word would be taken. Our childcare providers are also essential personnel. We must rally together to fill this pressing need across the Commonwealth while following strict public health protocols to keep our children safe.”
As of March 23 there have been 254 positive cases and six total deaths in the Commonwealth, according to Northam, who said the number was ascertained from 3,700 tests in public and private testing facilities.