The General Assembly passed a bill that will require full-time teachers to complete mental health awareness training, though some advocates are split on how the training should be implemented.
Del. Kaye Kory, D- Fairfax, sponsored House Bill 74, which incorporated HB 716 and HB 1554. Kory, a former school board member, said teachers and faculty may be better able to understand and help prevent related issues if they are trained properly to recognize signs of mental health problems. The bill requires school boards to adopt and implement policies for the training, which can be completed online. School boards may contract the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, a community services board, a behavioral health authority, a nonprofit organization, or other certified trainers to provide such training.
Kory said the bill was requested by several teacher groups in last year’s General Assembly.
“My intention is that the training provides the ability to ask the right questions at the right time,” Kory said via email. “As substance abuse becomes more common in young people, the need for early detection and response becomes more and more clear.”
The intent of the bill is good, said 4th District Richmond City School Board Member Jonathan Young, but there are potential flaws with the online training program.
“It often ends up being nothing more than a check in the box,” he said. “I’m not interested in another check in the box, I’m interested in real mental health training for our teachers.”
Young said teachers need professional development opportunities “to increase their awareness and develop some new skill sets.”
Schools currently offer online training programs with modules tackling cybersecurity and conflict of interest training, Young said. He said learning about something as important as mental health through a computerized training module may not be effective enough to combat the current mental health crisis.
Mental health training needs to be scaled up in schools and the solution has to be legitimate, Young said.
Only 7% of expenditures for mental health go to children under 18, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, an advocacy and education group. Studies show that early intervention might reduce the prevalence of serious mental health cases, according to the organization.
Approximately 130,000 children and adolescents live with a serious mental illness and only 1 out of 5 children get the help that they need, according to the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children.
Bruce Cruser, the executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, said the youth suicide rate has gradually increased in the state. He said that usually, the people who need mental health services are people that have experienced trauma, for example, any youth that has been abused or lost their parents at a very young age.
The General Assembly also recently passed an amended bill that will allow K-12 students excused absences for mental health issues. The bill gives the Virginia Department of Education until Dec. 31 to establish guidelines for public school districts to grant students excused absences if they are dealing with mental or behavioral health issues.
Joseph Whitney Smith – Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets.
Virginia reaches key vaccination milestone two weeks ahead of July 4 goal set by President Biden
Governor Ralph Northam announced on June 21, 2021, that 70 percent of adults 18 years and older in the Commonwealth have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Virginia is the 16th state in the nation to meet this goal set by President Joe Biden in early May and reaches the key vaccination milestone two weeks ahead of the nationwide July 4 target. To date, over 8.8 million doses of vaccine have been administered in Virginia, and more than 4.2 million individuals, or 60.3 percent of the population 18 and older, are fully vaccinated.
“Virginia has reached a significant milestone in the fight against COVID-19,” said Governor Northam. “Thanks to the millions of Virginians who have rolled up their sleeves to get vaccinated, the virus is in retreat, our economy is growing, and we are closer to putting this pandemic behind us. A statewide effort has brought us to this point, with strong partnerships in our communities, health systems, the private sector, and across all levels of government. Even as we celebrate this tremendous achievement, we will continue working together to vaccinate everyone who is eligible, so our Commonwealth so can keep moving forward.”
Virginia continues to see a significant decline in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. New daily cases exceeded a seven-day moving average of 5,900 in early January and dropped under 250 by June 1. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 peaked in early January with a seven-day moving average above 2,600 and had decreased to nearly 500 by June 1. Deaths from COVID-19 reached a seven-day moving average of 83 in mid-January and fell below 7 by June 1. Additional data on COVID-19 and vaccination efforts in Virginia can be found on VDH’s data dashboards. As Virginia’s vaccination program proceeds, VDH will continue to monitor trends including vaccination uptake, COVID-19 variants, and outbreaks.
“We are deeply grateful to all those who have been vaccinated and to the vaccinators helping Virginia reach and surpass this milestone,” said State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, MD, MA. “There are still Virginians we need to reach, and our efforts to make vaccination as accessible and as convenient as possible will continue. Those who have yet to get the vaccine are encouraged to do so to protect themselves and to keep others safe, particularly children under 12, people with weakened immune systems, or individuals who cannot be vaccinated for other reasons.”
Federal approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents aged 12 to 15 has made more than 400,000 additional Virginians eligible to get vaccinated, and about 30 percent of individuals in that age group have received the vaccine so far. VDH will continue working with school districts to make the vaccine available to students as the vaccination efforts shift from large-scale vaccination sites to health care providers, pharmacies, and mobile vaccine clinics.
“Virginia’s remarkable progress is a testament to the commitment, coordination, and leadership of our local health districts, community-based organizations, faith leaders, National Guard members, and so many others,” said Virginia Vaccination Coordinator Dr. Danny TK Avula. “While there is still work to do in addressing vaccine hesitancy, I remain confident that we can keep this momentum going and defeat this virus.”
“Reaching this goal shows that Virginians are serious about wanting this pandemic to end and wanting to keep themselves and their loved ones safe,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, MD. “This has been a team effort with Virginians, and we look forward to continuing to protect our communities.”
With increased vaccination rates, public health metrics trending in the right direction, and revised federal guidelines, Virginia ended all COVID-19 mitigation measures on May 28. The state of emergency that Governor Northam declared on March 12, 2020, in response to COVID-19 is set to expire on June 30.
Unvaccinated individuals and those who are not fully vaccinated should continue wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces in accordance with federal CDC guidance.
Virginians who have not been vaccinated yet are encouraged to go to vaccinate.virginia.gov or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682, TTY users call 7-1-1) to find a nearby vaccination clinic. For answers to frequently asked questions or to learn more about vaccination for COVID-19 in Virginia, visit vdh.virginia.gov/covid-19-vaccine.
Governor Northam proclaims June as Immigrant Heritage Month in Virginia
Governor Ralph Northam has issued a proclamation declaring June as Immigrant Heritage Month in the Commonwealth to celebrate the history, cultures, and contributions of Virginia’s immigrant communities.
Immigrant Heritage Month is observed in June across Virginia and nationwide. Governor Northam issued the following statement and shared a new video message to commemorate the observance.
“We are a nation of immigrants, and our communities are strong because of hard-working individuals striving to create a better life for themselves and their children. During Immigrant Heritage Month, we celebrate the countless ways that immigrants enrich our Commonwealth and our country, as well as our shared future.
“One in eight Virginia residents is an immigrant—they are business owners, health care workers, friends, neighbors, and a critical part of the fabric of our Commonwealth. Our Administration is dedicated to creating a Virginia that is accepting, welcoming, and inclusive of all who chose to call our Commonwealth home. We have placed equity at the center of our agenda, and we have great strides in increasing access to opportunity for our immigrant populations through the historic passage of driver privilege cards, Medicaid expansion, and in-state tuition for all students regardless of citizenship status.
“I urge my fellow Virginians to join us in commemorating Immigrant Heritage Month and exploring the diversity that continues to shape the uniquely American story.”
During the 2020 General Assembly session, Governor Northam signed legislation creating the Office of New Americans and establishing the Office of New Americans Advisory Board to advise the Governor, cabinet members, and the General Assembly on strategies to improve state policies and programs to support the economic, linguistic, and civic integration of new Americans throughout the Commonwealth.
“We are working to ensure that state government policies and practices foster support for new Americans who face institutional barriers to meaningful integration,” said Mona Siddiqui, Deputy Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of New Americans. “The Governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion serve as a liaison between the Governor, Office of New Americans, and the Office of New Americans Advisory Board to improve equitable opportunities and foster a sense of belonging to all those who have made their home in Virginia.”
“Our great nation was built upon the determination, talents, and ingenuity of the immigrants who came before us,” said Eric Lin, Chair of the Office of New Americans Advisory Board. “This holds true today, as our immigrant communities come and seek the American dream. I applaud Governor Northam for his understanding and uplifting of the valuable potential and contributions that our immigrant communities bring to the Commonwealth.”
Governor Northam also recently wrote a letter urging President Biden to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers in the next federal relief package. This change could grant legal status to about 140,000 people living in Virginia.
Governor Northam commemorates Juneteenth in Virginia
On June 18, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam commemorated Juneteenth during an event at Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton. This year will be the second statewide observance of Juneteenth and the first as a permanent state holiday in the Commonwealth.
Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger led Union soldiers into Galveston, Texas—the last of the former Confederate states to abolish slavery—bringing news that the Civil War had ended, and the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two and a half years earlier, and all enslaved people were free.
“Our recognition of Juneteenth signifies that we understand its importance to all Americans—it was on this day in 1865 that our nation took one step closer toward its promise of liberty and justice for all,” said Governor Northam. “While it did not end racism, oppression, or violence, it is an important symbol of hope—and a reminder of the constant struggle for equality. As we continue the work of telling the full and accurate story of our shared history, we must also acknowledge historical moments like this, even as they challenge us to reckon with our past and our present.”
Governor Northam also issued a proclamation for Juneteenth and shared a new video message. He first declared Juneteenth a state holiday in the Commonwealth in June 2020, and it was codified in Virginia law earlier this year. Virginia had long marked Juneteenth by issuing a proclamation or executive order, but it had never previously been considered a state holiday. Yesterday, President Biden signed the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,” which designates Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday, the first new national holiday to be approved since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.
“When we elevate Juneteenth as a legal holiday, we invite people to think about its significance,” said Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Janice Underwood. “All Virginians are encouraged to learn about and reflect on the historical events that made Juneteenth necessary because this collective understanding will make us stronger and more united.”
Governor Northam also announced that the Commonwealth is partnering with the Virginia Museum of History and Culture to distribute a new book created by the museum around its 2019 exhibit titled, Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality. The exhibit drew connections from 1619—when a ship carrying the first enslaved African people landed in Virginia at Old Point Comfort, the present site of Fort Monroe—across the four centuries of the fight for Black equality that followed.
The book, based on the exhibit of the same name, expands on its narrative, providing a concise and accessible survey of Black history in Virginia, and putting it in context to help readers understand how the struggle for freedom has shaped American history and democratic ideals. The Commonwealth will work with the Museum to provide a copy of Determined to every high school, middle school, and library in Virginia.
“The Virginia Museum of History and Culture is proud to partner with the Commonwealth to make this important history more available and accessible in schools and libraries,” said Jamie Bosket, President and CEO of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. “Determined was one of our most successful and highly-visited exhibits, and we created this book to ensure the important story it told, and the vast work from the historians and curators involved, would be lasting. After more than four years of research, we are honored to put forward this new resource for all those seeking to learn more about our shared past.”
Virginians are encouraged to participate in Juneteenth events hosted by the Northam Administration and community organizations taking place online and throughout the Commonwealth. A list of some of these events can be found here.
“We are making great strides in promoting a more truthful and comprehensive Virginia history through the work of Governor Northam’s historic justice initiative, the Department of Historic Resources, and across state government,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J Strickler. “Juneteenth is not only about reflecting on our past, but it is also an opportunity to renew our commitment toward building a more equitable and just future.”
Earlier this year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Fort Monroe as a Site of Memory Associated with the UNESCO Slave Route project. Fort Monroe shares this distinction with more than 50 other sites and entities linked to the history of the transatlantic slave trade.
Democratic States Attorneys General on recent U.S. Supreme Court ACA Decision confirmation
On June 17, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a historic verdict on the future of the Affordable Care Act. The court sided with Democratic AGs, dismissing a challenge to the Affordable Care Act led by Republican Attorneys General, thus leaving the law intact.
Since 2018, Attorney General Ken Paxton and 17 other Republican state attorneys general have waged war on the Affordable Care Act in an attempt to make it more difficult to access healthcare. The state of California was the first state to push back against this effort, and over 20 other states joined the fight. The decision today in California v. Texas emphasizes the key role of the Attorneys General in defending access to health care.
Democratic AGs will be participating in a virtual press conference to analyze the Supreme Court’s decision and discuss its implications. Democratic AGs remain committed to fighting for meaningful access to quality and affordable healthcare.
AG Herring successfully defends Affordable Care Act
Attorney General Mark R. Herring is celebrating his win after he successfully defended the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case California v. Texas. Attorney General Herring and 21 attorneys general successfully defended the ACA against a lawsuit filed by the Trump Administration that, if successful, would have dismantled the entire ACA, including its protections for people with pre-existing conditions, public health investments, and Medicaid expansion, among others. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ACA means 642,000 Virginians keep their healthcare coverage and 3.4 million Virginians with pre-existing conditions will keep their protections.
“Today’s decision (June 17, 2021) is a massive win for every single Virginian and every single American. This lawsuit was no more than a thinly veiled political attack from the start, forcing millions to live in fear that their healthcare could be ripped away from them at any moment,” said Attorney General Herring. “It is unconscionable that Trump and his Republican allies played politics with human lives, especially as a global pandemic ravaged our country, killing 600,000 Americans – but the threat of healthcare loss is now gone.
“I am incredibly proud to have played a role in defending the Affordable Care Act, ensuring that it remains the law of the land. Everyone deserves access to quality, affordable healthcare no matter who they are, what their medical history is, their employment status, or what financial background they have.”
In order to protect Virginians’ healthcare, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues intervened to defend the Affordable Care Act in this lawsuit after President Trump switched sides and joined with Republican state attorneys general in trying to strike down the law. Following a Texas district court judge’s decision in December 2018 that found the ACA unconstitutional, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
In January, Attorney General Herring joined a coalition of 21 attorneys general in filing a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking review of the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Texas v. U.S. The Fifth Circuit’s decision held the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional and called into question whether the remaining provisions of the ACA could still stand, including those that protect and provide coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions.
In May, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues filed a brief at the Supreme Court defending the ACA against efforts by the Trump Administration and Republicans to repeal the entire ACA. In July, the coalition filed a reply brief in the U.S. Supreme Court further defending the ACA against this reckless lawsuit.
Joining Attorney General Herring in fighting to protect the Affordable Care Act are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota (by and through its Department of Commerce), Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
Clinch River becomes Commonwealth’s first blueway state park
On June 16, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam celebrated the official opening of Clinch River State Park, Virginia’s 41st state park and first blueway state park. Consisting of 696 acres, the park is situated across several small anchor properties and connected by multiple canoe-kayak access points along a 100-mile scenic stretch of the Clinch River.
“With the dedication of Clinch River State Park, we will both protect and showcase one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse places in our Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “Located in the heart of Appalachia, this park will be a highlight of the robust outdoor recreation economy in Southwest Virginia and draw even more visitors to the region. The opening of our newest state park comes as we celebrate 85 years of Virginia’s state park system and the countless opportunities that our state parks provide.”
Clinch River State Park is the first of its kind in Virginia, based around a river instead of a landmass. The anchor properties and launch points comprise a “string of pearls,” or a collection of properties that run through Tazewell, Russell, Wise, and Scott counties where outdoor enthusiasts can access the river, learn about the river’s ecological diversity, and enjoy the beauty of what The Nature Conservancy has deemed “One of the Last, Great Places.” The Clinch River blueway provides a network of multi-activity recreational trails, marked by routes on a navigable waterway with launch points, camping sites, and points of interest for canoeists, paddleboarders, and watermen.
The Clinch River is among the most productive and biodiverse waterways in the Northern Hemisphere, sustaining more than 48 vulnerable animal species, including 29 varieties of rare freshwater mussels and 19 species of fish. Rare plants, mammals, and birds also thrive along the river’s edge.
“In addition to being a world-class recreation asset, the Clinch River is renowned for its biodiversity,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “Clinch River State Park will play a key role in the region’s ongoing efforts to protect this ecosystem while also increasing and encouraging public use and exploration of our natural landscapes.”
“After studies that began in 2005, much research and multiple land acquisitions, six tracts of land have been brought together to form Clinch River State Park,” said Department of Conservation and Recreation Director Clyde Cristman. “A very unique park is the outcome of that work, and we look forward to seeing how it will continue to develop and serve the people and visitors of the region.”
The Wise County property is known as Sugar Hill in Saint Paul currently has eight miles of hiking trails, a picnic shelter, and more than two miles of river frontage. The Sugar Hill area of the park also has significant cultural and historical attributes, as the property contains remnants of an 18th-century French settlement. Later owners farmed the land and in the 1930s created a maple syrup and sugar operation known as Sugar Hill.
Clinch River State Park allows hiking and biking on the Sugar Hill Loop Trail, while the AmeriCorps, Riverside, Hillside, Cliff, and Rock Bluff trails are hiking only. The Riverside Trail also offers access to bank fishing on the Clinch River.
“This park could not exist without the landowners who shared our vision and the efforts and partnerships of the communities along the Clinch River,” said Virginia State Parks Director Dr. Melissa Baker. “As visitors from all overcome to hike, fish, and float the river, it is our hope that they will also explore the local communities and discover what makes this region so special.”
Virginia State Parks are a division of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). DCR will develop a master plan with the public input to guide any future facilities and amenities at the park. To learn more about Virginia State Parks, visit virginiastateparks.gov.