Opinion: Commentary: Congratulations to the Class of 2021!

Opinion: Commentary: Congratulations to the Class of 2021!

At Mount Vernon High School class of 2021 graduation: Del. Paul Krizek, Sen. Scott Surovell, Supervisor Dan Storck, School Board members Karen Corbett Sanders and Tamara Derenak Kaufax.

At Mount Vernon High School class of 2021 graduation: Del. Paul Krizek, Sen. Scott Surovell, Supervisor Dan Storck, School Board members Karen Corbett Sanders and Tamara Derenak Kaufax.

Congratulations to all of the high school graduates and their families across the 44th district! Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to join my colleagues and proud teachers, principals, and parents to attend and participate in the first in-person high school graduation ceremonies in our community since 2019 at Mount Vernon High School and West Potomac High School. I am also looking forward to joining graduating seniors at Bryant High School’s ceremony later this week. The ceremonies took place on the football fields and went off without a hitch. Every speech, from both students and faculty, was inspirational and moving. I have the utmost confidence in the future when these incredible young leaders are at the helm.

After a year of uncertainty, it was uplifting to celebrate the remarkable achievements of these students who have sacrificed so much while completing their secondary education during a global pandemic. While last year’s seniors graduated virtually and saw many of their events cancelled, this year we thankfully saw our students transition back into the classroom after a year of at-home learning — albeit with distancing and mask requirements — and those aged 12 and up eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, making in-person instruction much safer for all involved. With infection rates lower than they have been for the first time since March 2020 and an increasing number of Virginians being vaccinated against COVID-19 each day, it appears that these in-person events are here to stay.

We made many significant investments in our K-12 education in this year’s budget. A budget highlights what we value, and education ranks as the 2nd largest expenditure in the Virginia budget (behind health and human resources).

Overall, $8.8 billion and $9.2 billion was allocated to public education for the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years respectively. $16.6 million was appropriated to supplement federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to support at-risk three and four year olds participating in the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI).

The Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back (G3) Fund and Program was signed into law, which makes tuition-free community college available to low-and middle-income students who pursue jobs in high-demand fields. The G3 program includes $36 million to cover tuition, fees, and books and provides wraparound support for eligible students at the Commonwealth’s two-year public institutions. The G3 program is also one of the first in the nation to provide financial assistance on expenses such as food, transportation, and child care. Through this new program, an estimated 36,000 Virginians will be able to earn degrees in key industries such as health care, information technology and computer science, manufacturing and skilled trades, public safety, and early childhood education.

Finally, our teachers and school staff deserve endless accolades for their adaptability and creativity in educating our students in new ways during this past year. We cannot thank them enough, but providing them with competitive pay is a good way to start. This biennial budget includes $80.1 million for a 2 percent bonus for teachers and support staff in 2022, and $153 million for a 5 percent pay increase for teachers, a step in the right direction to elevating teacher pay to the national average.

$30 million in the first year and $40 million in the second year were allocated to one-time programs and initiatives to address learning loss experienced by students due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These funds will continue to help academic recovery as we adapt to post-pandemic life.

Aside from budgetary measures, the General Assembly also passed several pieces of legislation to improve education for Virginia students.

A long-awaited bill was passed which provides that students who meet the criteria can be deemed eligible for in-state tuition regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. Now, all eligible students who live in Virginia will be able to continue their education without undue financial hardship.

Also, this year we passed The School Equity and Staffing Act, which addresses a long-standing shortage of social workers, nurses and mental health professionals in Virginia public schools by ensuring that each school has at least three of these specialized support positions per 1,000 students. This bill and a companion budget amendment invests $50 million in these positions, which are even more necessary than ever to address the lingering effects of the past year on our students.