Due to technical difficulties, our newsletter scheduled for Thursday, March 23, is being released today. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
This week’s newsletter highlights recent updates to Virginia’s history and social studies Standards of Learning and the Commonwealth’s participation in RGGI – the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. First, however, the tragic death of Irvo Otieno weighs heavy on our minds in Virginia, as does the need for accountability for his death. Thank you for taking the time to read the newsletter and for staying informed.
Recently, a scene that is frighteningly familiar in our country occurred in the Richmond region, recalling the death of George Floyd and too many others to count. Irvo Otieno, only 28 years old, died in police custody. Handcuffed and in leg irons, Irvo was asphyxiated as he was pinned down by numerous officers and hospital employees. That day, while being transported to a psychiatric hospital, Irvo was instead murdered. Rather than receiving the mental health care that he deserved, this young man died at the hands of authorities responsible for his well being.
Irvo is remembered by family and friends as a gifted songwriter, brilliant, creative, and bright. He enjoyed playing football and began playing at the college level but mental health concerns cut short his dreams.
Individuals experiencing crises should be met with appropriate behavioral and mental health services, and law enforcement personnel must be trained to recognize and respond to such crises in an appropriate manner. Beyond that, however, it is unconscionable that a young man in custody and in chains should be brutalized so severely that he is murdered while in the care of the State. I join others in calling for a full and thorough investigation of Irvo’s death.
Standards of Learning & Changes to VDOE
In August 2022, the Youngkin administration upended the work of historians and educators – reflecting two years of effort – by rejecting the nearly 400-page revised draft of the Standards of Learning for history and social studies. Since then we have been waiting for the administration to provide answers as to why that first draft produced by experts was rejected and to produce the “better” standards of learning that they have been promising us.
A second draft was provided in early Fall and rejected because of its sloppiness, numerous errors, and insufficiencies. Now, a third set of revisions, which has still continued to draw criticism from educators, historians, and the public, is expected to be voted on by the Board of Education next month. In anticipation of the vote, the Board hosted public hearings across the state, with the final meeting occurring this past Tuesday. Hundreds of individuals, including the Chair of the Virginia Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus (VAAPIC) Delegate Kathy Tran, have spoken in opposition to the standards and the secretive process by which they were crafted with remarkably intrusive input from conservative-leaning and non-Virginian institutions such as the Fordham Institute and Hillsdale College.
Further complicating the disrupted and long-delayed process of finalizing these standards of learning is the lack of leadership in the Virginia Department of Education for the past several weeks. Following the resignation of Superintendent Jillian Balow, who arrived from Wyoming just last January, Governor Youngkin announced the appointment of a new Superintendent yesterday, with the selection of Tennessee’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons. As the search was underway, many educators and leading education organizations called for the appointment of a Superintendent with strong experience in Virginia so that leadership could be restored quickly and effectively to the VDOE. Further complicating matters at VDOE is the fact that Balow apparently will continue to serve in some sort of “consultant” capacity to the Governor while also receiving a severance package that reflects a full year’s salary.
Our public education system deserves strong and clear state-level leadership. These disruptions have not been helpful as we seek to improve quality and address our workforce crisis in education. Rather than focusing on issues that we know translate to students’ success—increasing support positions in schools, funding behavioral and mental health counselors, paying teachers competitive wages, ensuring students have access to nutritious meals—this administration continues to promote culture wars seen throughout the country. We need clarity from the VDOE about our standards of learning and about its leadership going forward.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)
In one of his first declarations as Governor, Glenn Youngkin pledged to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, despite the fact that Virginia’s participation in RGGI is mandated by law. After attempts to take Virginia out of RGGI failed via Executive Order and legislative actions, Youngkin is moving forward through a regulatory process to undermine the Code of Virginia.
This month, members of the public had the opportunity to speak on RGGI to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality; all fifty experts and community members who spoke argued in favor of remaining in the program. Virginians recognize that our participation in RGGI affects climate change, public health, emergency preparedness and response, and opportunities to address needs for our most vulnerable communities.
Since its inception, over $590 million has been generated for the Community Flood Preparedness Fund and energy efficiency measures for low-income Virginians. If Virginia is pulled out of RGGI, our communities will lose the opportunity to access these critical funding streams.
The public has the opportunity to provide comment via the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall on our participation in RGGI through March 31; I encourage everyone to contribute to this important discussion.
VEA Education Champion Award
On March 17, I was honored to receive a 2023 Legislative Champion award from the Virginia Education Association (VEA). As the Senate Public Education Subcommittee Chair, I have a front seat view on the critical needs of our public schools, our students and educators. Our needs are great: competitive pay for educators; a strong focus on literacy, mathematics, and critical thinking; school modernization; English Language learners; support for vulnerable children; behavioral and mental health services, and much more. I look forward to continuing my partnership with the VEA to strengthen our public education system.
Mayor’s Youth Academy
The Mayor’s Youth Academy (MYA) is now accepting applications for its 2023 Summer Work-Based Learning program. The MYA program is a paid opportunity open to Richmond residents aged 14-24; participants gain valuable experience that translates to today's workforce. More information about the program is available by calling 804-646-7933 or emailing MayorsYouthAcademy@richmondgov.com.
Under the Families First Coronavirus Act, states were directed by the federal government to maintain Medicaid coverage for those enrolled on or after March 20, 2020, regardless of changes to eligibility, until the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. On March 31, 2023, this continuous coverage requirement will end, and the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS) will resume full re-eligibility screening of all Medicaid members, with the first closures set to occur on April 30, 2023.
In a year, re-eligibility screening will have been initiated for all 2.2 million Virginians enrolled in Medicaid. DMAS will only cancel or reduce coverage after first asking enrollees for updated information on their case. Contact information must be up to date. Contact information can be updated online, by calling the local department of Social Services, or calling Cover Virginia at 1-855-242-8282. Individuals who no longer qualify for Medicaid will be notified when their coverage will end, information on how to file an appeal, and a referral to the Federal Marketplace to find coverage.
Community Events & Meetings
For many in the Muslim community, last Wednesday marked the first fast for the holy month of Ramadan. As Muslims across the Commonwealth and the world begin this time of fasting, spiritual reflection, and charity, I wish all observants peace, healing, and special times with family and friends. Ramadan Mubarak!
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