WINCHESTER — Virginia first lady Pamela Northam and state Secretary of Education Atif Qarni visited Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School's summer program on Wednesday as schools across the commonwealth prepare to resume in-person learning this fall.
Northam and Qarni checked out a variety of creative classroom activities including a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) challenge where rising second graders tried to build the tallest tower possible from banana slices. They also observed incoming kindergarten students shaping letters of the alphabet from play dough.
Northam, who played a game of rock, paper, scissors with a few students, said she was happy to see "the pure joy of learning" that was taking place.
Winchester Public Schools' summer school program for elementary students began last week. The last time Northam toured area schools was in March, when she visited Handley High School and Frederick County Middle School to celebrate local efforts to keep in-person learning options available throughout the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's so important that we come out and talk about the critical importance of this in-person summer learning opportunity," Northam said in an interview on Wednesday. "We don't want them to be behind when they enter that door on the first day of school."
She added that it's important that all students feel capable and prepared when in-person learning resumes.
"That's what this really provides, they're really empowering all the children, especially those with special needs, those English Language Learners, those that we know struggled the most this last year," Northam said. "Every child deserves an opportunity to start school ready to learn."
Helping all students have equal access to early childhood learning stems from the equity work the Virginia Department of Education has been focusing on the past several years.
Most recently, Virginia was named the number one state for business by CNBC. Northam credited that, in part, to the equity initiatives in the state's schools.
"That would not have happened without equity in education," Northam said."That's one of the things businesses look at when they come here is that cradle to career talent pipeline, and that includes the diversity of everyone."
Northam's visit to Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School was part of her summer tour to raise awareness about the expanded child care subsidy program for Virginia families. The program provides financial help for child care to families with at least one child age 5 or younger who is not yet in kindergarten and with a household income up to 85% of the state median income.
Families approved for the program's benefits will stay eligible to receive the assistance for 12 months or until their income surpasses 85% of the state median income.
Northam said the program is especially important for women who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many left their jobs to care for young children or to help their children who were attending school remotely. In the U.S., more than 2.5 million women left the labor force between February 2020 and January of this year, compared to 1.8 million men during the same period.
"We want to really say there is help on the way for parents who are struggling, because the state has doubled the eligibility right now," Northam said.
For more information about the program, visit ChildCareVA.com.