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As fentanyl overdoses surge, education on how to reduce their impacts remains insufficient



This story is being published through a partnership between the Mercury and the Medill News Service.

Tricia Obester, an elementary school teacher and mother of a high school freshman, knew fentanyl overdoses were a national crisis. She was also aware that nationally some students were taking drugs. What she didn’t realize was how young some students were when they suffered overdoses. She also never suspected that juvenile overdoses had struck so close to her home.

On Jan. 31, a 14-year-old passed away in the boys’ bathroom of Wakefield High School in Arlington after an overdose. It was the same school where her son studied. Obester said the tragedy was “a definite wake-up call” to her and the community.

Another overdose occurred in an Arlington shopping mall parking garage on March 1. Arlington County Police Department spokeswoman Ashley Savage confirmed that the three people involved were juveniles.

There were no juvenile overdoses reported in 2019, according to Arlington Police Deputy Chief Wayne Vincent. The figure increased to one nonfatal overdose in 2020 and then jumped to eight overdoses in 2022. So far this year, Vincent said that seven juvenile overdoses had been reported in Arlington County.

Nationwide, increasing numbers of teens and young adults have overdosed on opioids, especially fentanyl. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Washington Post analysis. Substance abuse experts say educating the public to reduce negative consequences associated with drug use is crucial to prevention. But much of the education that does exist is insufficient. The gaps are especially significant in immigrant and low-income communities.

“The current drug poisoning epidemic is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my career,” Jon Delena, associate administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and a DEA special agent for nearly 27 years, said at a congressional hearing in February. “We must do everything we can to stop the crisis.”

A collection of photos of people who have lost their lives due to fentanyl in the lobby of the Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters. (Pingping Yin)

Efforts to reduce negative consequences associated with drug use are commonly known as harm reduction. Dr. Neeraj Gandora, chief medical officer for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said harm reduction is an important pathway to ensure that patients who may not be ready to engage in full treatment are at least able to mitigate the harms associated with the use of drugs.

For example, educating the public on how to administer naloxone, a medicine that reverses an opioid overdose, is a crucial element of harm reduction, according to Gandora.

Naloxone can rapidly block the effects of opioids when given in time. There are two forms of naloxone that anyone can use without medical training or authorization: prefilled nasal spray and an injectable version. Nasal spray naloxone is more common because it is needle-free, easy to use, and small to carry. It can be sprayed into one nostril of the person who has overdosed while the person lays on their back.

Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl, the small amount that fits on the tip of a pencil, can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

In addition, Gandora said people need to be taught how to spot the symptoms of risky drug use: “If we don’t identify patients, we’re not actually able to get them into treatment.”

In 2021, over 107,000 Americans lost their lives due to drug poisoning, which means an estimated 294 people died of drug poisoning every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two-thirds of those deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl, the small amount that fits on the tip of a pencil, can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance, and past usage. DEA seized more than 50 million fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills and 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder last year. That would be enough to supply a potentially lethal dose to every member of the U.S. population.

Rising demand for naloxone

Arlington County quickly intensified its efforts regarding overdose harm reduction soon after the overdose at Wakefield.

Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative, Arlington’s opioid and other addictions task force founded in 2017, has held at least one naloxone distribution every week since the beginning of February. The first event lasted only one hour. Three weeks later, it was extended to a whole day in response to the skyrocketing requests for the lifesaving drug.

Participants received a 10-minute, in-person training on how to administer naloxone. After the training, they received a free box of Narcan, a brand name of the most common nasal-spray form of naloxone, and several fentanyl test strips.

The Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative also provides free online naloxone training and free naloxone by mail.

Deborah Barber, an Arlington County resident, said before the overdose at Wakefield, she hadn’t thought the fentanyl crisis was affecting anybody in her community.

Shortly after the incident, she took a one-hour online opioid overdose harm reduction training. Then she brought her husband and high school-aged son to the in-person training to learn how to administer naloxone.

“This important information should be shared with all of my family members as well,” Barber said. 

Harm reduction educational materials provided by the Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative. (Pingping Yin)

Access challenges

Naloxone has been available at all Arlington public library branches since last summer.

At Marymount University, located in the northern part of the county, 29 new opioid overdose emergency boxes containing naloxone have been hanging directly next to automated external defibrillators on campus since the end of last year.

But despite such attempts to expand access to the drug, naloxone remains a prescription medicine. That means under federal regulation, adolescents are not allowed to carry naloxone at school.

Jennifer Sexton, a substance abuse counselor with Arlington Public Schools, said she worries that middle school students may not be responsible enough to carry Narcan and may spray it while joking around. But “I do think high schoolers definitely could carry it,” she said.

Staffing shortages make opioid overdose treatment facilities scarce in rural areas and communities of color

WASHINGTON – The message arrived for a young Huntington, West Virginia woman. She had been accepted into an opioid addiction therapy program. The problem was she had died two days earlier.

Her 2016 death pushed Huntington Mayor Steve Williams to create a quick response team to treat opioid overdoses.

The quick response team has proven to be a game-changer for Huntington. It helped the city lose nasty nicknames given by national media such as “The epicenter of the nation’s opioid epidemic” and “The overdose capital of America.”

Elsewhere in the country, opioid overdose treatment shortages are still prevalent in many regions, especially in rural areas and communities of color. A lack of staff is one of the main reasons.

In rural areas of West Virginia, for instance, shortages still exist, according to research by Joy Buck, a West Virginia University School of Nursing professor. Most addiction treatment facilities are located in urban areas. But West Virginia is largely a rural state, according to the state government. The majority of West Virginia’s 1.8 million residents live in communities of fewer than 2,500 people.

“We need to have [treatment centers] in regions throughout the nation, to have adequate treatment facilities to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to give an individual an opportunity to be able to come back and be a fully productive citizen again,” Williams said in January at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that telemedicine has not expanded access to care for people suffering from opioid addiction. It also found that most patients who used telemedicine lived in higher-income metro areas.

Some communities of color are experiencing the fastest increases in rates of opioid overdose death. But access to opioid and substance use disorder treatment is lower in Black and Hispanic communities.

Drug overdose deaths grew by approximately 30% from 2019 to 2020 in the United States. During the same period, drug overdose death rates increased by 44% and 39% among Black and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native populations, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black and Hispanic people were 3.5 to 8.1 percentage points less likely than white people to complete treatment for alcohol and drugs, according to a report published by the National Institutes of Health.

A cross-sectional study of all 3,142 counties or county-equivalents published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found counties with highly segregated white communities had more facilities to provide buprenorphine, a drug prescribed to treat dependency problems.

Dr. Neeraj Gandotra, chief medical officer for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said his agency has recognized this issue. It requires all new grant recipients to submit a data-driven disparity impact statement outlining how they plan to address behavioral health disparities within their grants.

Gandotra has also introduced several programs within SAMHSA to close equity gaps in opioid overdose treatment.

For example, the agency created a Tribal Opioid Response Program to address the public health crisis caused by escalating opioid and stimulant misuse in tribal communities. 

And it created technology transfer centers dedicated to American Indian and Alaskan Native populations and separate ones for Hispanic and Latino populations. The purpose of these centers is to develop and strengthen the workforce that provides prevention, treatment and recovery support services for substance use disorder and mental illness.

“We need to eliminate the racial and ethnic disparities that plagued the overdose epidemic,” said Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Illinois, at a hearing in the Capitol. Her district has become more rural after a recent redistricting. 

Even in communities with abundant substance abuse treatment for adults, adolescents don’t have equally sufficient options, said Jennifer Sexton, a substance abuse counselor who has worked for Arlington Public Schools in Virginia for seven years.

“The problem overall is that we don’t have enough people in the field to do the work,” said Mayor Nancy Backus of Auburn, Washington. 

Auburn has an opioid overdose treatment center in the city. However, Backus said the staff there suffers from burnout, and the treatment center is desperate for new employees.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the National Drug Control Policy, told mayors from across the country in January that his agency wants to push education institutions to develop more training programs to expand the workforce.

“The problem with that is very few schools today teach addiction curriculum, so the interest never develops,” he said.

Increasingly, teachers and staff throughout the county’s 41 schools are requesting naloxone. Sexton received 20 pages of names within the school system asking for naloxone after recent overdoses. Over 1,000 staff in Arlington Public Schools were trained in ways to reduce negative consequences associated with drug use, especially by administering naloxone.

Last month, two federal panels of addiction experts unanimously recommended that Narcan be made widely available without a prescription. That makes it very likely that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will approve an over-the-counter version of naloxone.

Dr. Timothy Westlake, an emergency physician from Wisconsin and the primary architect of that state’s prescription opioid strategy, said there are no side effects to naloxone.

“So it’s one of those things where I don’t see any reason … to have a prescription,” he said.

Darrell Sampson, executive director of student services for Arlington Public Schools, said if the FDA approves a nonprescription version of naloxone, it will “give us a different legal landscape from which we can work.”

Teaching students about harm reduction

All Arlington public schools teach students how to protect themselves from drug use beginning in the fourth grade.

Sexton said they teach elementary students how to read a medication label, recognize a medication has expired, and say no when strangers or even other children offer candy or pills. Middle school students and older focus on harm reduction for opioids and particularly fentanyl.

Sexton said most students have already been warned by their parents. But some fifth graders appeared scared when she showed them rainbow-colored fentanyl “because it did look so much like candy.” 

Rainbow-colored fentanyl tablets. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Not all parents are satisfied with the curriculum.

“The curriculum at the elementary school presently is behind where it should be on the standards that we’re supposed to teach,” said Obester, the elementary school teacher and mother. “The amount of exposure (to drugs) that kids have from older brothers and sisters and from social media … I think is something that was not predicted.”

At the elementary school where Obester works in Fairfax County, teachers found third graders vaping recently. They got the e-cigarettes from older siblings.

“I think the curriculum needs to be updated. I think we need substance abuse counselors meeting with students throughout elementary schools,” Obester said.

Shortages of substance abuse counselors

Arlington, like many other school systems, has a shortage of substance abuse counselors. There are 41 public schools in Arlington with nearly 27,000 students. But there are only six substance abuse counselors.

Sexton, for example, serves two middle schools and 24 elementary schools. Wakefield, the high school with the recent overdose fatality, has over 2,500 students but shares its only substance abuse counselor with other schools.

After recent overdoses, school substance abuse counselors started getting many more requests for education about overdoses and how to reduce their negative consequences.

“There’re a lot of requests for us to do different presentations at different types of community activities, which takes us away from really getting to meet with our students the way that we would like,” Sexton said.

She said it’s difficult to predict which children are likely to abuse drugs. But risk groups include students whose grades suddenly drop and students who suffer trauma, such as divorce or losing a family member.

Some students with mental health issues self-medicate, according to Obester. “This makes sense when you can’t get help otherwise,” she said.

At a meeting at Wakefield one month after the student died, a parent urged the school board to increase the number of counselors. “You have to find more!” the parent shouted to applause.

The shortage of counselors is “a national issue,” said Deborah Warren, deputy director of the Arlington County Department of Human Services. “But we definitely need, honestly, far more resources.”

Warren said the county is coming up with more creative strategies for recruitment, such as paying for substance abuse counselors to move to Arlington and serve the community.

Harm reduction education is disparate

Students and parents are eager for harm reduction education. But they are not the only groups in search of help.

“We can’t just rely on the schools to do something. We can’t just rely on families to do something. It needs to be throughout the community,” Obester said.

Arlington’s immigrant community and low-income families especially need more resources.

In Arlington County, most naloxone training and harm reduction materials, such as flyers and videos, are bilingual in order to serve Spanish speakers.

But in a highly diverse county like Arlington, many communities remain without useful tools. For example, students at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School come from 47 countries. Not all their parents are proficient in English.

Warren said it is particularly hard to find counselors who speak the many languages spoken by Arlington families. Arlington Public Schools has even posted ads in Puerto Rico in an attempt to recruit bilingual counselors.

The challenge is even greater on the West Coast, in communities such as Orange County, California, which is home to many Chinese immigrants.

Various community-based organizations have started to provide opioid harm reduction to non-English speakers in Orange County. For instance, the Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center printed postcards in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and other Asian languages that describe the symptoms of overdoses and how to use naloxone.

In order to educate immigrant communities, it’s not enough just to translate the language. “It also means the cultural consideration and the multicultural piece to really understand the nuances behind it and how you can better reach that population,” said Luna Lu, a mental health clinician with the center.

Because government officials may not be able to reach every group in a diverse area, community groups that represent different cultural backgrounds may be a more effective way to reach diverse populations, said Lu.

“We are the tentacles in the community,” she said. “And we are more than willing to fill those holes.”

But she complains that funding is scarce. The Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center has to spend its limited funds on public information campaigns. The only donation it received for this effort was 1,000 boxes of Narcan that it received for free via a website called

Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative received $70,000 this year from Virginia’s State Opioid Response Grant for opioid overdose prevention, according to Emily Siqveland, the opioids program manager of the Arlington County Department of Human Services.

She said that’s enough for most of their campaigns, such as Narcan distribution and advertisements on TV, public transportation and social media apps. But more would allow the department to expand its overdose education offerings.

Siqveland said in her dream world, Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative would work like a music band, “driving around, doing these trainings in different neighborhoods.”

“If we here in Arlington County, one of the richest counties in the country, can’t access the funding and put this in place and help our students pass the disaster … then I don’t know who can,” said Obester.


by Pingping Yin, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Cast Your Line: Enjoy fresh and saltwater fishing without a license



This weekend promises to be an excellent time for fishing aficionados and novices alike. Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources and Marine Resources Commission has announced free fishing days from June 2-4, 2023, enabling the public to fish without the need for a license.

Whether your passion lies in fresh or saltwater fishing, the first weekend of June offers the perfect opportunity to engage in recreational rod and reel fishing without the usual red tape.

Despite this freedom, it’s important to note that fees charged by fishing piers are not exempt during this period. Moreover, all fishing regulations, such as size, season, catch limits, and gear restrictions, remain firmly in place.

For details regarding saltwater limits and regulations, you can visit the Marine Resources Commission’s website. The 2023 Freshwater Fishing and Boating Regulations can be found on the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website.

Junior Anglers are especially encouraged to check out the program tailored specifically for them.

The Free Fishing Days are authorized by the Code of Virginia, § 28.2-302.5. So, mark your calendars and make sure to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to experience all that Virginia’s waters have to offer!

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Virginia State Police urges safety as summer travel begins amidst tragic loss during Memorial Day weekend



The 2023 Memorial Day weekend has unfortunately led to the loss of nine lives, which included four motorcyclists. The statistical count for this tragic weekend commenced on Friday, May 26, 2023, at 12:01 a.m. and concluded at midnight on Monday, May 29, 2023.

The Virginia State Police participated in the nationwide Operation Crash Awareness Reduction Effort (C.A.R.E.) and the annual Click It or Ticket campaign. Throughout this period, Virginia Troopers registered 771 seat belt violations and 136 child restraint violations.

Colonel Gary T. Settle, Virginia State Police Superintendent, expressed his concern with summer approaching and schools letting out. He emphasized the urgent need for responsible driving and adherence to safety protocols.

All available Virginia State Police patrolled the highways during the four-day Operation C.A.R.E. initiative, aiming to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities due to impaired driving, speeding, and seat belt violations. The initiative resulted in 4,990 speeders and 1,924 reckless drivers being cited, with 89 impaired drivers being arrested. A total of 1,846 traffic crashes were investigated, and 634 commercial vehicles were inspected. The initiative also led to 169 felony arrests and assistance to 1,447 disabled motorists.

Fatal crashes were reported from the City of Richmond, and Henry, Loudoun, Orange, and Shenandoah counties. Loudoun and Henry counties reported two fatal crashes each, while two out of four fatal motorcycle crashes occurred in Loudoun County.

Comparatively, the 2022 Memorial Day Operation C.A.R.E. initiative reported 16 fatalities.

Funds generated from the summonses issued by Virginia State Police are directed towards court fees and the state’s Literary Fund, which supports public school construction, technology funding, and teacher retirement.

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Report on Virginia public education standards and policies overdue



Over a four-month period in 2022, Virginia leaders in education and workforce development held a series of meetings to provide recommendations to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration on improving state K-12 education.

However, a report on recommendations from those meetings, which were convened to fulfill the requirements of a 2022 law known as House Bill 938, remains six months overdue, with no explanation for its delay.

Asked about the report last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office did not provide an update on its status or why it hasn’t been released. A follow-up request in May went unanswered.

“The administration values the input from public school principals, school superintendents, school board members, and school teachers received both through the [House Bill] 938 workgroup and other feedback opportunities,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter in an April email. “We continue to incorporate this feedback into the policies and actions needed to restore excellence to education and ensure our schools are serving every child. A detailed review of the policies and actions implemented over the last year and the Department’s policy recommendations will be outlined in the report.”

House Bill 938, which passed the General Assembly last year, required the Board of Education, Secretary of Education, and Superintendent of Public Instruction to create a group of stakeholders to evaluate various state policies and performance standards for public education.

Among the goals the group was tasked with evaluating were “promoting excellence in instruction and student achievement in mathematics,” expanding the availability of the Advanced Studies diploma, “increasing the transparency of performance measures,” and ensuring those measures “prioritize the attainment of grade-level proficiency and growth” in K-5 reading and math, and “ensuring a strong accreditation system that promotes meaningful accountability year-over-year.”

A report on the group’s findings and recommendations was due to the House and Senate education committees by Nov. 30, 2022.

During a Feb. 2, 2022 hearing, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera called the legislation an opportunity for Virginia to develop a strategic plan to ensure public school students are prepared for life and the demands of the future.

“There are a lot of signs that we don’t have that, and that means taking a review of our standards, our curriculum, our assessments to make sure they are best in class and our proficiency levels are aligned with what the economy and democracy requires, and also our accountability system is aligned to make sure that we are holding systems accountable for serving every single child in Virginia,” Guidera said.

During the same hearing, Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, who carried the bill, said the legislation was “part of the governor’s ‘Day 1 Plan’ to empower parents” and a “mission statement as to where we want to take our education system.” She did not respond to interview requests.

Fifteen teachers, principals, parents, superintendents, school board members, and higher education and business experts were convened by the administration for the work group, which met at least four times before concluding its work in November, according to an October 19 report to the Board of Education. The group was also broken into four smaller groups that focused on “Mathematics Excellence and Achievement,” “Advanced Studies Diploma Options,” “Academic Growth and Assessment,” and “School Accreditation and Data Transparency.”

Each topic group met individually and was assisted by members of the Department of Education and the Region 5 Comprehensive Center, which provides assistance to states on education and is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

According to a Nov. 3 draft provided to the Mercury, some of the work group’s recommendations included providing additional funding for elementary and middle school math specialists, revising state accreditation profiles to make them more accessible, and improving communication about how both learning growth and proficiency contribute to school performance scores.

Members who spoke with the Mercury said they were uncertain of whether there was any opposition to the recommendations after they were submitted.

“The timeframe for the HB 938 group was fairly limited, and so we could only accomplish so much,” said Kimberly Bridges, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the workgroup. “But I think there were folks at that table who were more than willing to keep working if the state had asked. But again, it just kind of ended, the report was drafted, and the folks on the working group did what they were there to do.”

A timely report

Members of the work group said the report is particularly timely given that the Board of Education is currently considering new accountability and accreditation systems.

In May 2022, the Youngkin administration released a report calling for “a new path” for Virginia education after student proficiency ratings and test scores on state and national assessments dropped following the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration has blamed changes to school accreditation standards made by prior Democratic-controlled Boards of Education for the declines and, most recently, has proposed changes to how the state scores its schools.

At the same time, the administration has pushed for state education to focus more on workforce readiness, with Youngkin calling for every high school student in Virginia to graduate with “an industry-recognized credential.”

Courtney Baker, director of workforce and training for the Associated General Contractors of Virginia, who served on the Mathematics Excellence and Achievement topic group, said one of its recommendations was for Virginia to focus more on applied mathematics associated with careers such as architecture and engineering, instead of the “standard fast-paced, credit-driven approach.”

Additionally, the group recommended allowing students enrolled in career and technical education courses to qualify for Advanced Studies diplomas. Similar efforts to expand career and technical education in Virginia through legislation failed during the last General Assembly session.

[Read more: Bills to bolster career and technical education falter in General Assembly]

Baker said Virginia is “plagued” by a workforce shortage, pointing to estimates from construction industry groups that more than 250,000 craft professionals will be needed in Virginia by 2026.

“While we continue to hear how important the trades are to the health of Virginia’s economy, we do not see that reflected in current policy,” Baker said. “Students cannot pursue CTE training and qualify for prestigious advanced diplomas, CTE classrooms are in need of additional funding, and we have CTE instructors who are retiring and not being replaced.”

Proficiency vs. growth

Educators and lawmakers have debated for years how student success should be measured and whether assessments of school performance should focus more on student proficiency, as measured on state exams, or evidence of growth in test results.

Most Virginia schools remain fully accredited despite student testing declines

The Youngkin administration has argued for a greater emphasis on proficiency, saying that the inclusion of growth factors in school accreditation rankings has masked deficiencies in performance.

Officials were especially skeptical of the state’s most recent accreditation results, which showed only a few schools fell short of full accreditation despite student declines on standardized tests. Specifically, the number of fully accredited schools dropped from 92% in the 2019-20 school year to 89% for the 2022-23 year.

“This broken accountability system fails to provide a clear picture of the academic achievement and progress of our schools to parents, teachers, and local school divisions,” Youngkin said at the time. Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow similarly said the school ratings “fail to capture the extent of the crisis facing our schools and students.”

Both Balow and former Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who chaired the House Education Committee, told the Washington Post that school accreditation rankings shouldn’t lump together proficiency and growth.

However, many education experts argue both factors are important in determining school success — a conclusion supported by the HB 938 work group, which in its Nov. 3 document stated that “focusing on both proficiency and growth provides an accurate depiction of how schools are performing.”

“The board should ensure that growth and proficiency continue to be included in one combined rate and increased parent-friendly communication surrounding its meaning would promote transparency,” the document says.

Members of the work group recommended the Board of Education “consider a weighted balance” of the two and conduct further investigation on the issue.

“We need accountability that looks at both student growth and students reaching proficiency. If you want to get a holistic picture of what’s happening with learning in schools,” Bridges said. “If you’re only looking at proficiency, particularly after coming out of this pandemic, and all of the impacts that it’s had on kids and their learning … then you’re only getting a piece of the larger picture.”

Members of the work group said they hope the report will be prepared and included as part of the board’s discussions.

Rodney Jordan, a former president of the Virginia School Boards Association who served on the work group, said Virginia has had a long history of educational excellence, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges students face.

I don’t want to see the pandemic used as an excuse for allowing opportunity gaps, lack of support for teachers and ill-defined student outcome goals to persist; I want to see those things lessened, frankly deliberately eliminated,” Jordan said.

However, he continued, education leaders must “acknowledg[e] that where students start and where students end can vary from school to school and community to community, and we have to find ways of accelerating academic excellence for all of our children while also finding ways to continue to … raise the bar and ceiling simultaneously.”


by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Fentanyl crisis prompts Virginia’s deployment of National Guard to aid Texas



In a decisive move, Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia has issued Executive Directive Four, deploying targeted resources to respond to the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) request from the State of Texas. This action comes in light of the ongoing southern U.S. border crisis, characterized by increased drug trafficking and human trafficking.

The border crisis, which has turned every state into a border state, has caused significant instability along the U.S. border with Mexico. The supply of illegal drugs, including the highly lethal fentanyl, has sharply increased, resulting in devastating consequences for Virginia families and communities. Shockingly, an average of five Virginians die per day from fentanyl overdose.

Texas, recognizing the severity of the situation, requested assistance from all states and territories through the EMAC. Virginia, being a founding member of the compact, has responded to the call for help. As per Governor Abbott’s request, Virginia will be deploying 100 troops to support Texas in managing the border crisis.

“The ongoing border crisis facing our nation has turned every state into a border state,” Governor Youngkin emphasized. “As leadership solutions at the federal level fall short, states are answering the call to secure our southern border, reduce the flow of fentanyl, combat human trafficking, and address the humanitarian crisis.”

The decision to deploy troops is driven by the intensive resource demands on Texas, the dangers posed by the fentanyl crisis, and the impact of the border crisis on criminal activity in Virginia. Fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, has become a severe threat to the Commonwealth, with an alarming increase in fatal fentanyl overdoses in recent years. Mexican cartels are also smuggling other narcotics, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin, across the border.

Texas has already invested substantial resources in border security operations, spending over $4.5 billion since 2021 and recently securing an additional $5.1 billion in funding. The state has deployed its own National Guard soldiers and Department of Public Safety troopers to combat the crisis and adopt a “deter and repel” strategy. This approach involves erecting physical barriers and demonstrating a physical presence to impede border crossings and prevent the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and people.

The recent termination of a public health order has further escalated the border crisis, requiring Texas to increase its resource commitment to address the issue effectively. In response, Texas made numerous requests for assistance through the EMAC, leading to Virginia’s decision to deploy the Virginia National Guard soldiers to support key aspects of Texas’ mission.

Under the executive directive, Virginia National Guard soldiers will be equipped with the necessary resources, including weapons, ammunition, body armor, protective masks, and night vision devices, to assist in their operations. The deployment will remain in effect until September 30, 2023, signaling Virginia’s commitment to assisting Texas during this critical period.

Governor Youngkin’s proactive response to the border crisis and the deployment of troops demonstrates the dedication of Virginia to tackle the supply of illegal drugs, combat human trafficking, and address the humanitarian crisis affecting communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. By joining other states in delivering additional assistance to Texas, Virginia aims to contribute significantly to the collective effort to secure the southern border and protect its citizens.

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Governor Glenn Youngkin announces landmark change in state agency hiring practices



On May 30, 2023, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced a landmark change in how state agencies will recruit and compete for talent by eliminating degree requirements, preferences, or both for almost 90% of state-classified positions. The new Commonwealth hiring practices will expand opportunities for Virginians and give equal consideration to all qualified job applicants.

“On day one, we went to work reimagining workforce solutions in government, and this key reform will expand opportunities for qualified applicants who are ready to serve Virginians,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin. “This landmark change in hiring practices for our state workforce will improve hiring processes, expand possibilities and career paths for job seekers and enhance our ability to deliver quality services. Last month, Virginia achieved the highest labor force participation rate in nearly ten years, demonstrating the Commonwealth’s sustained workforce developments.”

“Changing how we think about workforce planning, talent acquisition, and leveraging knowledge, certifications, technical skills, apprenticeships, and work experience into measurable business results has been a Day 1 Workforce Development priority for this Administration,” said Secretary of Administration Margaret “Lyn” McDermid. “As an employer, the state government has one of, if not the most diverse occupational portfolios in Virginia. Our employees design, build, manage, and sustain public services across hundreds of lines of business, and giving equal consideration to all job applicants, including those who have experience solving real-world problems, is a smart business practice.”

“This is great news for the state government and all job seekers. By giving equal consideration to applicants with an equivalent combination and level of training, knowledge, skills, certifications, and experience, we have opened a sea of opportunity at all levels of employment for industrious individuals who have the experience, training, knowledge, skills, abilities, and most importantly, the desire to serve the people of Virginia,” said Secretary of Labor Bryan Slater. “We are also working hard to examine regulated occupations and professions to find ways to simplify and speed up credentialing processes and universal licensing recognition for individuals who want to live and work in Virginia.”

This change will take effect on July 1, 2023. Virginia is the latest in a growing number of state governments to elevate the value of work experience and its new prominence in the future of America’s workforce. On average, Virginia state agencies advertise over 20,000 job opportunities each year.


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Heavy traffic and rain forecasted for Memorial Day weekend – pack patience, plan ahead



Travel and weather forecasts for the 2023 Memorial Day weekend have the Virginia State Police strongly encouraging all drivers to be prepared before heading out to any holiday destination. Pack your patience for potential delays and congested highways due to significant traffic volume and inclement weather conditions. In addition, state police remind drivers to ditch distractions, buckle up, and never drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Travelers are also encouraged to “know before you go” by checking the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) 511 traffic cameras and real-time information on road conditions by dialing 511 on a phone, visiting or downloading the 511 app.

“Virginians need to make traffic safety a priority every day and, especially as we head into the Memorial Day weekend and summer travel season,” said Colonel Gary T. Settle, Virginia State Police Superintendent. “Memorial Day weekend is filled with celebrations, vacations, outdoor festivals, and backyard cookouts, which is why we need all motorists to share the road responsibly by driving smart, safe, and sober.”

Beginning Friday, May 26, 2023, VSP joins law enforcement around the country for the Operation Crash Awareness Reduction Effort (C.A.R.E), a state-sponsored, national program intended to reduce crashes, fatalities, and injuries due to impaired driving, speed, and failing to wear a seat belt. The 2023 Memorial Day statistical counting period begins at 12:01 a.m. on May 26 and continues through midnight Monday, May 29, 2023. All available state police troopers and supervisors will be on patrol through the holiday weekend to help keep traffic moving safely and responsibly.

On Monday, May 22, 2023, state police participated in the kickoff for the annual “Click It or Ticket” campaign. This enhanced enforcement and education effort aims to further emphasize the lifesaving value of seat belts for every person in a vehicle.

During the 2022 Memorial Day Operation C.A.R.E. initiative, 16 individuals lost their lives in traffic crashes on Virginia roadways.* During last year’s combined Memorial Day C.A.R.E. initiative and the annual “Click It or Ticket” campaign, Virginia Troopers cited 4,888 speeders and 1,875 reckless drivers and arrested 90 impaired drivers. In addition, 659 individuals were cited for seat belt violations, 117 were cited for child safety restraint violations, and 144 felony arrests were made. Virginia State Police also assisted 1,735 disabled motorists.

With the increased patrols, VSP also reminds drivers of Virginia’s “Move Over” law, which requires motorists to move over when approaching an emergency vehicle stopped alongside the road. If unable to move over, then drivers are required to cautiously pass the emergency vehicle. The law also applies to workers in vehicles equipped with amber lights.

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5:48 am8:32 pm EDT
Feels like: 90°F
Wind: 4mph NE
Humidity: 27%
Pressure: 29.87"Hg
UV index: 5

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