Northam: Colleges, universities can reopen in fall

Mike Still • Jun 12, 2020 at 8:15 AM

RICHMOND — Three-and-a-half months after ordering them closed for in-person classes, Gov. Ralph Northam says Virginia’s public colleges and universities can reopen in the fall.

On Thursday, Northam and Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, announced preliminary plans for the reopenings. Northam said the decision follows favorable health metrics across the state, including declining rates of COVID-19 positive test results, adequate hospital bed capacity in case of a new surge of cases, and lowered COVID-19 death rates during the pandemic.

Blake said that each state college and university will have to submit a reopening plan for SCHEV review, covering:

• how the institution will repopulate the campus

• monitoring of student, faculty and staff health and infection

• containment of any infection

• shutdown procedures if needed

Blake said reopening institutions will follow guidelines under the Northam administration’s Forward Virginia plan for reopening businesses and public facilities as well and state and federal health guidelines. Reopening will mean a “new normal,” he added, including social distancing, smaller classes and reworked class schedules along with changes in campus food service and increased cleaning and disinfecting of campus facilities.

College athletics and even theater and performing arts programs will look different from pre-pandemic days, Blake said.

“We want our students back on our campuses this fall in as safe a manner as possible,” Northam said.

Blake said state institutions will get more instructions on the reopening process on Friday.

Asked about waivers for public schools in areas of Virginia that are seeing lower infection rates than other parts of the state, Northam called on state Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, who said that the Forward Virginia guidelines allow him to look at variances on a case-by-case basis.

“In places like Southwest Virginia, where there’s been very little transmission,” Lane said. “we do anticipate that variances may be considered, and we look forward to seeing what those look like when they come back from the school divisions.”

Northam and state Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne, Jr. also discussed the state’s revenue situation as the end of the fiscal year arrives June 30. Layne said earlier projections of a $1 billion revenue shortfall through the end of the fiscal year. With a 26-percent decline in revenue in April over April 2019 and a 20-percent decline in May from the same time last year, Layne said, the overall shortfall may be around $800 million.

“It’s still a very difficult time for the state and many businesses and individuals,” Layne said. “It appears that we’re close to a bottom that we were a few months ago. It doesn’t mean a fast turnaround.”

Layne said that many large businesses in the state were able to maintain payrolls, while the federal Payroll Protection Program loans helped other businesses keep employees and pay withholding taxes to the state.

Northam also talked about ongoing protests in some Virginia cities and in the Washington, D.C. area. Besides asking protesters to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, he asked protesters to get tested for COVID-19.

Northam pointed to another hazard from the protests — a demonstrator was injured in Portsmouth when a statue of a Confederate soldier struck them as a crowd tried to tear down a Confederate monument.

“I know these statues cause a lot of pain,” Northam said. “Pulling them down is not worth someone’s life.”

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