By Aila Boyd
Over the past week, Botetourt County, Botetourt County Public Schools, and Gov. Ralph Northam have issued guidance on COVID-19, the virus that is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that’s a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past.
Last Friday, Botetourt County issued the following statement: “Out of an abundance of caution as a part of the process of responding to the current COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic, the Botetourt County will be instituting the following alterations in local government operations, effective immediately, unless otherwise noted. All alterations to local government functions will be reassessed on or before March 30, 2020, and revised as appropriate and safe do to so. The county will continue to provide updates as appropriate.”
The county also issued the following announcements/guidelines:
- Visitors without official business will not be permitted to enter local government facilities.
- Anyone presenting with signs and symptoms of a respiratory illness will be asked to leave.
- All those visitors with official business will be asked to report to the bathroom and wash their hands prior to further interaction with county staff.
- Any planned gatherings or auxiliary public functions being hosted or sponsored by Botetourt County are being cancelled or postponed through the end of March.
- County government employees will no longer be allowed to travel outside the United States and are strongly discouraged from traveling outside of Virginia. Regional travel should be limited to only those situations required to continue necessary local government functions.
- Those positions identified by County Administration to be eligible for telework are encouraged to work remotely. Only those personnel essential to maintain operations should be present in person.
- Botetourt County Recreation sporting events have been suspended for at least two weeks.
- Botetourt County Libraries will close starting on the morning of Monday, March 16, 2020, for at least two weeks
Gov. Ralph Northam ordered last Friday that all K-12 schools in Virginia to close for a minimum of two weeks in response to the continued spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Schools will close from Monday, March 16, through Friday, March 27, at a minimum. Localities will maintain authority over specific staffing decisions to ensure students maintain continuity of services or learning, while protecting the public health of teachers and staff.
“We are taking this action to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as possible, and to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” said Gov. Northam. “I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus. This is a fluid and fast-changing situation. We will do everything possible to ensure that students who rely on school nutrition programs continue to have access to meals, and that the disruption to academics is as minimal as possible.”
Virginia Department of Education officials are working closely with school divisions and the Department of Social Services to ensure students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs are able to access those programs while schools are closed. The Department of Education will issue guidance and memos to superintendents across the Commonwealth to provide specifics about the continuity of education, school nutrition, and updated public health guidelines.
“We recognize this decision places burdens on many of our parents and families, especially for those who rely on school nutrition programs for access to healthy food for their children,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “However, we believe closing Virginia schools is in the Commonwealth’s best interest as we seek to stop the spread of COVID-19. Virginia will continue to explore and implement innovative approaches to provide meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch during this closure.”
“The Department of Education is working closely with divisions to minimize disruptions to our students’ academic development by encouraging schools to provide students and families with educational resources throughout this time,” said Dr. James Lane, State Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We are committed to help divisions address all the implications of these closures and will seek to provide each division with maximum flexibility to address local needs as they arise, especially as it relates to make-up days.”
Last Thursday, Gov. Northam declared a state of emergency for Virginia, which will provide increased flexibility to ease regulatory requirements and procurement rules, continue federal and multi-state coordination, and ensure continued access to critical services for the most vulnerable Virginians.
Gov. Northam also halted specially scheduled state events and conferences for 30 days, and banned out-of-state travel for state employees, with allowances for individuals in border communities.
On Sunday, Botetourt County Public Schools issued an announcement following a meeting that was held between Dr. Lisa Chen, superintendent, Central Office staff, and county principals. “Your child’s well-being remains at the core of our decision,” Dr. Chen said.
The announcement included the following points:
- Elementary and middle school instructional packets will be available for pickup on Tuesday, March 17 and Wednesday, March 18 from 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. at the respective schools. If parents/guardians are unable to pick up at these times, instructional packets will be delivered to the child starting on Thursday, March 19. Please allow some extra time.
- High school instructional packets can be found and downloaded on the “Instructional Resource” tab of our COVID-19 website. For families without internet access, this information will be mailed home with report cards. Allow for a few extra days.
- Food will be available for pickup in the lobby of your child’s school from 7-9 a.m. starting on Tuesday, March 17. Children must be present to receive a meal. Breakfast and lunch for that day can be picked up during that time.
- The BCPS FAQ document is now posted on COVID-19 website.
- Dr. James Lane, state superintendent, recently released a memo, available in the Resources section of COVID-19 website.
- An “Instructional Resources” section was added to the Resources page on COVID-19 website. This information will help parents/guardians, staff, and students during the school closure.
Dr. Chen explained that she will continue to work with the Virginia Department of Education on graduation requirements, SOL testing, and state accreditation. “I will communicate this information as it becomes available to us,” she said.
Rep. Ben Cline (R-6th) addressed the virus in the Sixth District Perspective, his weekly legislative update, on Saturday.
“Since the outbreak, Congress and the federal government, in conjunction with state and local officials, have taken numerous steps to curb the virus from spreading to more of our nation’s citizens,” Cline said. “Last week, I voted for and Congress passed $8.3 billion in emergency coronavirus funding for our public health agencies, which the President subsequently signed into law. New funding of $7.8 billion will be used to address this public health crisis, while $500 million will be used to replenish reserve funds that have been depleted over the past several weeks.
“Additionally, this emergency funding invests over $4 billion to make diagnostic kits more available. It allocates nearly $1 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exclusively for state and local response efforts. And it allows for billions in low-interest loans to small businesses, limiting the economic impact of the disease. Most recently, the House passed a second bill (H.R. 6201) in the early hours of Saturday morning. And while I supported last week’s $8.3 billion coronavirus funding bill, I could not vote for a 100+ page, multi-billion-dollar piece of legislation given I only had 23 minutes to review it. As I said during my campaign, ‘never again should we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.’
“This week, the President also took several steps aimed at protecting the health and well-being of the American people. In an address to the nation he outlined immediate steps to mitigate the effect of the virus on American businesses and workers. The Administration is putting forth a $50 billion economic assistance package to support small businesses and workers harmed by the outbreak, as well as expanding loans to businesses, deferring tax payments for certain businesses and individuals negatively impacted, and calling on Congress to pass payroll tax relief,” Cline continued.
“Following this, on Friday, the President declared a State of Emergency thus allowing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to exercise the authority under the National Emergencies Act to temporarily waive or modify certain requirements of the Medicare, Medicaid, and State Children’s Health Insurance programs and of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Privacy Rule throughout the duration of the public health emergency declared in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Further, the U.S. Department of Labor issued guidance to the states outlining flexibilities in administering their unemployment insurance programs. The federal government will now allow states to issue such benefits when, ‘(1) An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work; (2) An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over; and (3) An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.’ The guidance also makes clear that under federal law an employee is not required to quit in order to receive benefits due to the impact of COVID-19.
“To protect the health of Americans, the administration is bringing together government and private industry in a collaborative process to expand testing capacity and access to pharmaceuticals, general-use face masks, therapeutics, and vaccines. So far, more than 1 million tests have been distributed nationwide, with another four million tests to be shipped by the end of the week. Testing is now available in every state lab in the country, and commercial labs are now deploying tests to localities, which will help generate a dramatic increase in availability.”