Zobia Nayyar

Virginia schools closed remainder of term; some businesses ordered shut

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia will close public and private schools for the remainder of the academic year, Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday during a press conference. He also outlined stricter guidelines for which businesses can remain open.

The move, which applies to K-12 schools, is part of an executive order that goes into effect March 24 at 11:59 p.m. until April 23. 

"We have a health crisis and we have an economic crisis but the sooner that we can get this health crisis under control, the sooner that our economy can recover," Northam said. 

Currently, the state’s 1.3 million public school students are in the middle of a two-week break due to the coronavirus. With 254 positive cases in Virginia and seven confirmed deaths, the governor finds it best to practice social distancing because “social distancing matters everywhere,” he said. Northam encourages schools to use online tools to finish students’ education for the rest of the academic year.

“School closures are necessary to minimize the speed at which COVID-19 spreads and protect the capacity of our healthcare system,” Northam said.

Northam said school division leaders will officially decide how students will learn the information they were meant to cover for the remainder of the year. The Virginia Department of Education will issue guidance to help school divisions think through those decisions and ensure every student is served fairly, Northam said. VDOE will submit a waiver to the federal government to lift end-of-year testing requirements and is exploring options to waive state mandated tests, he said.

The governor also placed additional restrictions on businesses. Restaurants must close their dining rooms but can remain open for carry-out and delivery. Recreational and entertainment facilities—including racetracks and historic horse racing facilities, bowling alleys and theaters—must close. Beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other non-essential establishments that can’t keep people more than 6 feet apart must close. Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet and feed stores, electronic and hardware retailers, and banks can remain open.

Autumn Carter, who has owned Red Salon Organics in Richmond for 20 years, said she has a loyal clientele. However, she is concerned about making lease payments and managing other business-related bills, with no new revenue. Her salon made the decision to close last week for two weeks, but did not anticipate shuttering business for this long.

“I agree with the governor’s decision but he has given us no debt relief and no guidance,” Carter said. “He has put us in a terrifying situation with no support.”

Public and private gatherings of more than 10 people are banned. Northam explained that local law enforcement could approach people gathering, say at beaches or the river, but that the goal isn’t to penalize people, “but to encourage people to do the right thing.” 

The governor noted that the commonwealth is moving into a period of sacrifice. Virginia had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, but Northam said that last week around 40,000 people filed for unemployment.

“We must put aside what we want and replace it with what we need,” he said.” It will require everyone to sacrifice.”

Legislature passes bill to extend kindergarten hours

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Senate bill that almost doubles the instructional hours of kindergarten classes required for school accreditation from 540 hours to 990 hours passed its final hurdle in the House Thursday with a vote of 94-6.

 Senate Bill 238, introduced by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, directs the Board of Education to adopt regulations by July 1, 2022, along with the requirement that the standard school day for kindergarten students average to at least 5.5 instructional hours in order to qualify for full kindergarten accreditation. Local school boards may approve a four-day weekly calendar, so long as a minimum of 990 hours of instructional time is provided.

Not every school system currently offers a full day of kindergarten. Supporters of the bill said this legislation helps establish standards of quality.

“We're down two school systems in the state that are not yet at a level where all students go for full day kindergarten, one of those Virginia Beach, the other is Chesapeake,” Barker said in front of a House subcommittee meeting. “Virginia Beach has a plan where they're moving forward on it and Chesapeake is also increasing the number of students.”

Barker said that a full day of kindergarten benefits students’ academic performance, social interaction and involvement with teachers and other adults. “There are significant benefits to it,” he said. 

According to the bill’s 2020 Fiscal Impact Statement, the additional 450 hours would not affect funding paid from the state to local school divisions based on attendance. School divisions that do not currently provide the 990 hours of instructional time may experience additional costs to add classroom space and hire new staff. The fiscal impact to local school divisions cannot be determined.

“Ironically we are already paying them as if they had full-day kindergarten,” Barker said. 

Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Fairfax, inquired about the timeliness of the bill during the House meeting. She asked why the bill will be enacted in 2022 and not next year.

“What I tried to do was to be sensitive to some of the issues that some of those school systems might encounter or in some cases will encounter, but I would certainly be happy if they move faster,” Barker said.

Chesapeake and Virginia Beach are already taking steps to establish a full day of kindergarten for their schools. A representative of Chesapeake schools told the House panel that the school district had to gradually implement full days due to space limitations. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, asked why the legislation was needed if the districts were already implementing the changes.

Loudon County representatives have said they might in the future reverse the full day format, Barker said, and his legislation would guarantee all school systems are meeting the full day standard. 

Director of Government Relations at the Virginia Education Association Kathy Burcher said the VEA supports Barker’s bill, and the organization looks forward to the progress the bill will make.

“Putting it in code, ensuring that the requirement is there, will make sure that no school division slides off, particularly as we're looking at that continuum from birth through entering the workforce,” Burcher said. “We want to make sure there's no child that can possibly fall through the cracks in part-time kindergarten because it's a tremendous impact on their ability to stay on track for graduation.”

The bill now moves to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for approval.

House advances bill to allow food stamp benefits at certain restaurants

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House advanced a bill this week that will help individuals in Virginia with an annual income of less than $3,600 get a hot meal with their food stamps, from certain restaurants.

House Bill 1410 passed the House Tuesday 54-41. The bill requires the Department of Social Services to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program, or RMP, of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by Jan. 1, 2021.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, is one of five patrons on the bill and said that this bill is within the interest of the state.

“I witnessed firsthand how sometimes the lack of public education with regards to nutrition can lead individuals of lower income to use money to purchase foods that are not as nutritious as that which would be provided by a restaurant,” Samirah said.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is a federal program that provides benefits to eligible low-income households. 

In 2015, SNAP helped 4.6 million people living in poverty, according to the Coalition Against Hunger which helps people apply for the benefits. 

A recipient is given an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that can be used to buy any food item except prepared or hot food. The bill would allow participants to purchase prepared meals from participating restaurants.

“The state would have to figure out exactly what restaurants would be able to access food stamp money as a form of payment for food provided,” Samirah said.

Chief patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, said she hopes the proposed legislation will make hot meals accessible to the disabled, elderly and homeless populations, the groups of people the program is limited to.

“My ultimate goal with this is making sure that we are taking care of people who need to eat and that they eat nutritious whole meals, or they eat at whatever restaurants that like to participate,” Roem said.

Arizona and Rhode Island allow individuals to use their benefits card to purchase meals at approved restaurants. In Arizona, participating retailers include mainly fast food options: Subway, Jack in the Box, Papa John’s and Taco Bell.

“This is actually great for the restaurants because when someone actually swipes their SNAP benefit card in the first place, that money goes directly to the restaurant; it's guaranteed income,” Roem said.

The Virginia Department of Social Services must implement two parts of the legislation. The first part is reaching out to restaurants to encourage them to participate in the program, and the second part is informing current SNAP recipients of the participating restaurants and outline the conditions.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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Nonprofit Urges Lawmakers to Protect Domestic Worker Rights

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- After a 15-hour work day, Lenka Mendoza is tired but she prepares to do it all over again the next day.

 Mendoza spoke Tuesday at a Care in Action press conference in support of several General Assembly bills, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The nonprofit advocates for fairness and dignity for U.S. domestic workers, including 60,000 domestic workers in Virginia, according to director Alexsis Rodgers. The bills would increase the quality of life for a group of workers that includes house cleaners, cooks, waiters, nannies and caregivers who provide services in a private home.

“Virginia is actually dead last when it comes to workers’ rights across the country,” Rodgers said. “I would say we're not even on the list.”

Care in Action announced its support of Senate Bill 804, introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill guarantees domestic service workers to not be excluded from employee protection laws, laws regarding payment of wages and other laws regarding the workforce.

“It is time for us to cut the last vestiges of Jim Crow by expanding worker protections to the best workers,” McClellan said. “Laws that ensure minimum wage, safe workplace and protection and against discrimination currently are not extended to domestic workers due to minimum employee thresholds, as well as specific exclusions from wage compensation and workplace saving laws.”

Currently under the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, minimum wage laws do not apply to employers with less than four employees at any given time. McClellan’s bill removes this exemption. It also allows an employee to bring an action against their employer if they are in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act, regardless of the number of people employed.

McClellan cited statistics from the Economic Policy Institute that 17% of domestic workers live in poverty. In Virginia, personal care aides make an average of $21,240 a year, while home health aides earn an average of $23,440 per year, according to the same data.

“While we have the opportunity to create new jobs, we need to ensure that those jobs come with protections that those workers so desperately need,” McClellan said.

Del.Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, introduced House Bill 1730, which is similar to McClellan’s bill. She says it’s time to care for the people who have cared for others over the years.

Gooditis said she decided to introduce a bill focused on domestic workers because of a personal experience. Both her parents have dementia, and they are taken care of by two "amazing women," Gooditis said. She said domestic workers deserve minimum wage protections and other benefits. 

HB 1200, introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, also may help domestic workers. The bill says no employer can discriminate against workers based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, childbirth, age or pregnancy or related medical conditions.

Mendoza has been a domestic worker for the past 18 years. With a Spanish translator by her side, Mendoza said she lives without the benefits for which she now fights. 

“We are here to petition to our legislators to support the domestic labor laws,” she said.

She said domestic workers don’t get the luxury of having sick days or being able to go to doctor’s appointments, because they are there to care for others.

“Not only are we caring for your children, older people in your homes and preparing your food, we're also a pivotal point in education for those young people who will eventually grow to be very active members and contributors to our society,” Mendoza said. 

Both bills have yet to advance to the House or Senate floor.

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‘The end is in sight’: ERA moves closer to ratification in Virginia

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By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

ERA introduced

RICHMOND, Va. -- Resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment swiftly passed the General Assembly Wednesday. The House version passed 59-41 and the Senate bill cleared with a 28-12 vote. The next step will be for each resolution to pass the other chamber, sometime in February.

“As the House sponsor of the bill, it is an honor to lead the effort in this historic moment for women,” said Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, in a released statement. “This vote demonstrates how greater female representation in government can significantly improve the lives of women across the country. We are here and will be heard.”

VAratifyERA, a campaign focused on the state’s ratification tweeted shortly after passage of the resolutions: “The end is in sight!”

First lady Pam Northam and daughter Aubrey Northam appeared at the House gallery to witness the moment. They joined a crowd of mostly women who cheered loudly when the measure passed.

The governor and Democratic legislators have championed the ERA as a legislative priority, promising this year the amendment wouldn’t die in the House as it has in past years.

“Today is an absolutely historic day for our Commonwealth and a major milestone in the fight for equality in this nation,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement.  “Women in America deserve to have equality guaranteed in the Constitution and Virginians should be proud that we will be the state that makes it happen.”

Though Virginia passage of the ERA is seen as a symbol of the new Democratic leadership, the effort may be too late. The Department of Justice announced last week that the ERA can no longer be ratified because its deadline expired decades ago.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel agreed that the deadline cannot be revived.

“We conclude that Congress had the constitutional authority to impose a deadline on the ratification of the ERA, and because that deadline has expired, the ERA Resolution is no longer pending before the states,” Engel said.

Carroll Foy said in an interview last week that she believes the DOJ legal counsel’s opinion will not stop the ERA’s progress.

“I am more than confident that this is just another effort by people who want to stop progress and who don't believe in women's equality,” Carroll Foy said. “This is another one of their concerted efforts to deny us fundamental rights and equal protections. But the time has come; we are unrelenting. We will not be deterred, and we will have our full constitutional equality.”

The amendment seeks to guarantee equal rights in the U.S. Constitution regardless of sex. It passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. Efforts to ratify the ERA gained momentum in recent years when it passed in Nevada and Illinois.

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Five states --Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota -- have stated their intent to rescind their ratification, which ERA opponents say could prevent it from being added to the constitution, according to VAratifyERA. The ERA organization said that “Article V of the Constitution authorizes states to ratify amendments but does not give states the power to rescind their ratification.” The organization points out that the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments were added to the Constitution despite some state efforts to rescind ratification.

Herring said that he is “preparing to take any steps necessary to ensure that Virginia is recognized as the 38th ratifying state, that the will of Virginians is carried out, and that the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be.”

Female-led groups united at the General Assembly last week, urging representatives not to pass legislation ratifying the ERA. Groups such as The Family Foundation of Virginia, Eagle Forum, Students For Life of America and Concerned Women for America said they oppose ERA ratification because the amendment does not explicitly support women’s equality.

“The ERA does not put women in the Constitution,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, chairman of Eagle Forum, a conservative and pro-family group. “It puts sex in the Constitution, and sex has a lot of different definitions.”

President of the Virginia chapter of the The Family Foundation Victoria Cobb believe women have already achieved equality.

“Today I am different than men and yet equal under the U.S. Constitution, and Virginia Constitution and Virginia laws,” Cobb said.

A statement released last week by the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that certifies ratification of amendments, indicated that the agency will follow DOJ guiERA its about timedance that the deadline to ratify has passed "unless otherwise directed by a final court order."

Still, enthusiasm was palpable Wednesday at the State Capitol.

“The people of Virginia spoke last November, voting a record number of women into the House of Delegates and asking us to ratify the ERA,” said Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring in a released statement. “It is inspiring to see the amendment finally be considered, voted on, and passed – long-awaited recognition that women deserve.”

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