House committee approves seven Senate bills after crossover

BY CAROLINE ROBELEN
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

During the first post-crossover meeting of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, the committee voted to report seven Senate bills with uncontested House companion legislation. Of the seven, only two were not reported unanimously: SB1116 and SB1438.

SB1116, presented by Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, provides that the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority has the power and duty to support energy development projects, including pump storage hydropower, energy storage, hydrogen production and uses, carbon capture and storage and expands the Authority’s ability to apply for federal funding. It is identical to HB1781, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, which passed the House in a 99-0 vote.

The committee passed two amendments to the bill presented by Chris Nolen, an attorney representing CNX Resources. Nolen worked with Hackworth and O’Quinn on the bill, that cleaned up language to ensure consistent definitions between it and HB1643, sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott. HB1643 directs the Department of Energy to evaluate policy options to encourage the capture and beneficial use of coal mine methane.

Del. Daniel Helmer, D-Fairfax, had concerns that the bill would create incentives for new coal mines in the state.

Nolen responded that the bill gives the Authority the charge to promote the capture of coal mine methane, whether from old or new mines. Currently, Nolen said, CNX is one of only a handful of companies that tries to capture the ventilated methane from coal mining and use that productively, either for manufacturing or electricity generation.

“What we’re trying to do is encourage more capture of that in the normal course of the coal mining activity because we believe it can be an economic catalyst for Southwest Virginia,” Nolen said. “We would like some assistance in spreading the word that this resource ought to be captured and utilized because methane is 25 times more potent than CO2.”

Helmer pushed further, asking if the ability to capture methane fundamentally changes the economics of the decision to build a new coal mine or start new digging.

Nolen reiterated that encouraging the creation of new coal mines was not the intent of the bill, and added that it is expensive to put in a capture system.

“I think what it says is that [methane] is a resource that could otherwise have economic value if you do capture it, and quite frankly, the incentives are not there currently to do much of this because in the carbon offset market, you’re not recognized for capturing and avoiding this emission that would otherwise occur,” Nolen said.

Del. Robert Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, asked clarifying questions in favor of the bill.

“If we’re worried about global warming and those kinds of things, this is actually helping to mitigate that problem, would I be correct?” Orrock asked.

Nolen affirmed that he was.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, questioned whether SB116 was appropriate, given the passage of HB1643 on the House floor two days previously, which she voted for.

“We just said we’re going to kind of further assess how we could do [methane capture] in an efficient and economically beneficial way in Virginia and now at the same time we’re looking at moving forward with giving the duties to this authority to conduct those activities,” Tran said. “So I feel like for me this is putting the cart before the horse a little bit.”

Nolen argued that the two bills work together, with HB1643 looking for policy options to incentivize methane capture on a broad scale, and SB1116 focusing on Southwest Virginia and the Authority currently in existence and the energy projects it is trying to bring to the area.

The bill was reported on a vote of 17-4, with delegates Helmer and Tran both voting no.

SB1438, presented by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, prevents any foreign adversary from acquiring or transferring any interest in agricultural land.

“This is a really important issue,” Stuart said, noting the sophisticated work of military bases in Virginia and food security issues. “This is a modest measure, I believe, to try to protect those resources and protect the citizens of the commonwealth.”

Stuart also referenced bipartisan efforts on this issue at the federal level, and the work of Senator Mark Warner, D-VA, and Representative Abigail Spanberger, D-VA to address the same concerns.

Tran asked the counsel whether the version before the committee was identical to the version that passed out of the House on Feb. 7, HB2325, sponsored by fellow committee member Del. Rob Bloxom, R-Accomack.

Counsel responded that the House version removed the definition of controlling interests, which states that “‘controlling interests’ means either possession of more than 50 percent of the ownership interests in an entity or a percentage ownership in an entity of 50 percent or less if such owner directs the business and affairs of such entity without the requirement or consent of any other party.”

Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, asked if the definition of controlling interests was needed.

“I would prefer that the definition stay in,” Stuart said. “We worked really hard on this bill and the substitute to get it in good shape. The definition certainly doesn’t hurt anything and we may need it at some point in time.”

Bloxom also voiced his support for keeping the definition.

The bill was reported on with a vote of 17-3, with Tran voting no and Bulova voting yes.

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House GOP postpones bill on reproductive freedom

BY EMILY WEINER
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

RICHMOND – A House Courts of Justice subcommittee voted along party lines to indefinitely postpone discussion on a proposed constitutional amendment that would add the right to reproductive freedom to the Virginia Constitution.

The bill, HJ 519, proposed by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, would provide the right to reproductive freedom and choice to all Virginia residents. It would also prohibit legal action against anyone who exercises such right by terminating a pregnancy or using contraception.

Herring proposed the bill because she wanted to ensure access to abortion and other reproductive rights would remain in the state of Virginia after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

“After the [Dobbs v. Jackson] decision was handed down from the Supreme Court, soon after, the governor made a declaration that he is going to try for a 15 or 20 week abortion ban,” Herring said. “I thought that was dangerous for individuals who have a pregnancy and something goes wrong.”

Current Virginia law allows for unrestricted abortion through the second trimester of a pregnancy, which Herring wanted to protect, she said. 

“My effort was to make sure that we preserve our current laws, which allow access to abortion,” Herring said. “I think our law right now is correct for Virginia, and that’s why I introduced [HJ 519].”

Those in opposition to the bill, like Del. Wren Williams, R-Franklin, think that HJ 519 would contest the current Virginia constitution.

“In my opinion, if we were to pass this bill … it would be in conflict with the remaining provisions of the bill of rights, and that’s why I move to [pass by indefinitely] on this bill,” he said.

Virginia legislators had the opportunity to codify Roe v. Wade into the state constitution in 2021, but that was not prioritized because Democrats held power in both houses and the executive, according to a legislative source who spoke under the condition of anonymity. At that point, the General Assembly would have had to call in a special session, which was not received well by the Senate, she said.

According to a New York Times article, Senate Democrats were on vacation when the supposed special session would have occurred, and they did not want to cut their time-off short. 

Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Faquier, wrote in an email that she has been working to protect Virginia women’s right to choose.

“I [was] a teenage single mother in Peru,” Guzmán wrote. “Although I wanted my baby, it was very hard, and I would never take that choice away from another woman. The Supreme Court of the United States has shown it will not protect women. We need to take our reproductive freedom into our own hands and pass an amendment to Virginia’s constitution because no one else is going to fight for our rights for us or like us. We owe it to Virginia women.”

Ayé Johnson, a representative from the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project, said in subcommittee that HJ 519 would be essential for protecting Virginians because less access to reproductive health care can be fatal.

“We know that when abortion is restricted, we know that maternal mortality rates go up,” Johnson said. “We also know that infant mortality rates go up.” 

According to a study done by the Commonwealth Fund, maternal death rates are 62% higher in states with abortion restrictions compared to states with abortion access. The study also found that perinatal deaths (deaths occurring while still in utero and up to the first week of life) were 15% higher in abortion-restricted states than states with little to no abortion restrictions. 

Senate approves health care coverage bill for children uninsured because of immigration

(Sen. Jennifer McClellan/General Assembly photo)

BY KATIE CASTELLANI
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

RICHMOND – The Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would provide healthcare coverage to thousands of children in Virginia who are uninsured because of their immigration status.

Senators voted 24-16 to pass SB 1327, also known as The Cover All Kids Act, introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill would add Virginia to the list of 12 other states and Washington, D.C. that have or are in the process of implementing a comprehensive state-funded healthcare program for children regardless of their immigration status.

The program would offer the same benefits as Medicaid and FAMIS and provide care for children who are underinsured either because their parents’ employers do not provide coverage or their immigration status as undocumented disqualifies them from health insurance coverage. 

“The Cover All Kids program would remove backwards and outdated eligibility rules, opening a path to health coverage for 13,000 uninsured and underinsured children in Virginia.” McClellan wrote in a statement. “We must take action to ensure that every child in Virginia has access to health care, regardless of their immigration status.”

Supporters of the bill emphasized the economic benefits of providing consistent care for uninsured kids who often only seek health in emergency situations because they lack insurance coverage.

“It will help families who can take their kids to preventative care services before things get too bad,” Freddy Mejia executive policy director for The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis said. “They’ll be able to take care of their children without having to worry about the financial stressors, allowing them to pay for other essentials, like rent, food, and transportation.”

Despite the lack of vocal criticism and bipartisan support, the bill will face an uphill battle in the House where discussion of an identical bill introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, was indefinitely postponed in a House Health, Welfare and Institutions subcommittee earlier this session.

House bill moves forward to bar transgender athletes to compete in sports

(Del. Karen Greenhalgh/General Assembly photo)

BY WESTEN DORAN
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

A bill that would ban transgender people from participating in sports based on their gender identity passed 6-4 in a House subcommittee. 

HB 1387 was proposed by Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, and would “bill requires identification of the student’s biological sex on an athletics eligibility form signed by a licensed physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant to be submitted by any such student who desires to try out for or participate in an interscholastic, intercollegiate, intramural, or club athletic team or sport.”

She emphasized that her reason for introducing  the bill was to protect biological females’ opportunities to participate in sports fairly. 

 “Young women should be encouraged to achieve their full potential and to enjoy all the benefits of competition, which was the sole purpose of Title IX,” Greenhalgh said in the Post-Secondary and High Education Subcommittee meeting on Jan. 30. “Similarly gifted and trained males will always have the physical advantage over females, which is the reason we have women’s sports.”

The bill would require that a licensed physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant  to sign off on the biological sex of a student for them to compete on any interscholastic, intercollegiate, intramural, or other club sports teams from elementary, secondary and higher education..

This differs from a similar bill proposed by Del. Marie March, R-Floyd,  HB 1399, which states that biological sex would come down to what is listed originally on the birth certificate. HB 1399 failed because of a lack of motion at the subcommittee meeting on Jan. 30

A Washington Post poll in June 2022 found that 55% of participants  oppose allowingtransgender girls to participate in high school sports and 58% oppose it for college sports.

Many supporters of the bill emphasized this point as to why they stood behind the bill as a way to defend a safe space for biological women to participate in sports.

Riley Gaines, a former NCAA All-American swimmer at the University of Kentucky, spoke during the public comment section about her experience swimming against Lia Thomas, a transgender female swimmer at the NCAA Division I event in March 2022.

Thomas tied with Gaines for fifth place in the 200 freestyles down to the 100th of a second, but Thomas was to pose with the trophy, Gaines said.

“By allowing Thomas to displace female athletes on the podium, the NCAA intentionally and explicitly discriminate on the basis of sex,” she said.

Opponents of the bill defended transgender athletes’ place in sports of all levels,  citing it’s important to build up self-confidence and community.

“I think what these bills [HB 1387 and HB 1399] fail to recognize is the social aspect of sports,” Rowan Adam, a student at the University of Virginia Law school. “Sports gives you friends and a sense of belonging, which is especially important when you’re a kid figuring out who you are and where you need to be.”

Many representatives from pro-LGBTQ+ organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Virginia Trans Activist Network and Equality Virginia, spoke out against the bill.

“We [Side by Side] oppose this bill. Trans students matter,” Drew Newton, Director of Education and Advocacy at Side by Side a pro-LGBTQ+ organization in Virginia.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax County, spoke against the bill during the subcommittee meeting, saying there wasn’t much urgency or importance to it.

“Is there a crisis? Is there a sense of urgency to this?” she said. “We are not here to make laws to discriminate against a group of people.”

HB 1387 will move to a full committee on Wednesday.

Emergency contraception bill fails in House

BY CAROLINE ROBELEN
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

A House subcommittee killed a bill along party-lines that would require healthcare providers to give emergency contraceptives to sexual assault survivors.

The bill, HB2097, was proposed by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Albermarle. The majority Republican Health, Welfare and Institutions Subcommittee #3 voted to lay the bill on the table, which essentially kills it for this legislative session. 

“I hope it should come as no surprise that the number one concern of [sexual assault] survivors seeking treatment in Virginia’s hospitals is pregnancy,” Hudson said as she began her introduction of the bill. “Most people don’t want to be forced to bear a child after non-consensual intercourse.”

Hudson said the most effective medical interventions to protect sexual assault survivors from pregnancy are emergency contraception, which take two forms: oral emergency contraception pills, such as Ella and Plan B, and intrauterine devices (IUDs). The efficacy of emergency contraception pills decrease with the patient’s BMI and are less effective during the period of ovulation, Hudson explained, making IUDs an important option for patients.

“In working with forensic nurse examiners and sexual assault nurse examiners in my district, I have heard increasing reports that the additional opportunity to intervene in a potential pregnancy is not always covered by the Virginia Crime Victims Fund and is not always available depending on the prescriber who is on duty in facilities that night,” Hudson said.

HB-2097 would ensure that survivors of sexual assault can receive appropriate courses of treatment by requiring that the Virginia Crime Victims Fund cover emergency contraception, just as it covers rape examination kits, Hudson said. Additionally, the bill would require that hospitals have in place plans to ensure that patients can receive their preferred course of treatment, even if an individual provider may have objections on moral or religious grounds.

“Importantly, nothing in this bill would require an individual provider to administer emergency contraceptives in violation of their personal, moral or religious objections to that treatment,” Hudson reiterated. “It simply requires that hospitals have in place a plan to ensure provision of that care if an individual provider would object.”

Renee Branson, the executive director of the Sexual Assault Resource Agency in Charlottesville,. spoke in favor of the bill, wearing a black “Believe Survivors” t-shirt and a teal sexual assault awareness ribbon.

“A key component of care in [sexual assault survivors’] healing, both physical and emotional, begins with the return of their autonomy and self-control over the healthcare that they receive,” Branson said.

Ashley Apple, the commissioner for government relations for the Virginia Nurses Association, also spoke in favor of the bill.

“Perpetrators of sexual violence often target those who are most vulnerable,” Apple said. “Those living in poverty are particularly at risk. The Crime Victims Fund was intended to shift the financial burden to perpetrators of sexual violence rather than survivors of sexual violence, but unfortunately, many have been denied access to the most effective method of emergency contraception.”

Karen Kelly, representing the Virginia Affiliate of the American College of Nurse Midwives, emphasized the distinction between emergency contraception and abortifacients in her support of the bill.

“Emergency contraception works by preventing ovulation or fertilization,” Kelly said. “It prevents pregnancy, it does not induce abortion nor disrupt an established pregnancy.”

Those that spoke in opposition to the bill all cited conflict with Virginia’s current conscience law, which does not require individual physicians, hospitals, or other medical facilities to participate in procedures that will result in abortion if there are objections on personal, ethical, moral or religious grounds.

“We certainly support compassionate care for survivors of sexual assault, but we also support Virginia’s current conscience law,” Jeff Caruso, representing the Virginia Catholic Conference, said. “This would be a mandate on certain providers.”

Caruso also noted that the VCC opposes the public funding of abortion, and brought up concerns that one of the emergency contraception drugs mentioned, Ella, can sometimes lead to abortion. 

In December 2022, the Food and Drug Administration changed the information on the box of Plan B to make clear that it does not prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb and that the product cannot be described as abortion pills, according to reporting by the New York Times. Less research has been conducted on Ella and the F.D.A.’s change will not affect its labels, but studies suggest that it is highly unlikely to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.

After public comment had ended, Del. Kathy Tran ,D-Fairfax,, drew attention to lines 208-211 of the bill.

“‘Dispensing or administering a complete course of emergency contraception in the form or forms requested by the survivor of sexual assault after the survivor is provided with information pursuant to subdivision 4 and in accordance with the currently accepted professional standards of care -’ and this is the part I’d like to highlight, ‘- including instances of moral or religious objections by individual health care providers,’” Tran read.

Tran asked the lawyer present at the meeting, Chandler Brooks, if HB-2097 sufficiently respected Virginia’s conscience clause.

“As written it does require the hospitals to develop policies that allow for individual providers to not have to administer anything that would conflict with their personal religious beliefs,” Brooks affirmed.

House advances bill to increase minimum sentence for firearms-related offenses

(Del. Michael J. Webert/General Assembly Photo)

BY KYRSTIAN HAJDUCZKA
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

RICHMOND – A House committee voted 12-10 along party lines Monday to advance a bill that would increase the mandatory minimum sentence for firearms-related offenses in Virginia.

HB 2360, introduced by Del. Michael J. Webert, R-Rappahannock, would increase the minimum sentence for the use or display of a firearm during the commission of certain felonies from three to five years for a first offense and five to 10 years for a second offense.

Webert proposed the bill in response to the increase in crime across Virginia over the past year, specifically homicides in which a firearm was used.

“The increase in crime over the last few years has proven that we need to keep folks that are willing to do harm behind bars,” Webert said during the Appropriations committee meeting. “We saw an increase of homicides in Virginia in 2020 from 428 to 528, so we’re in an effort to keep these people behind bars and from committing felonies with a gun.”

According to the Virginia State Police 2021 crime report, there were 562 homicides in Virginia in 2021, with 446 of those deaths being caused by a firearm. The crime report for 2022 is not yet available.

The bill also increases the minimum sentence from five to 10 years for knowingly possessing any firearm within the building of a child day center or school and intending to use it, attempting to use it or displaying it in a threatening manner.

Del. Mark D. Sickles, D- Fairfax, was one of the 10 Democrats who voted against the bill. He voiced his concern over the bill’s financial validity during the committee meeting.

“With going from five to 10 years mandatory minimum, how could that only cost $48,000?” Sickles said. “I mean that looks like a really low number for another five years in the corrections department.”

 The average daily operating cost per inmate in 2021 was $107.09, roughly $39,000 a year, according to a 2021 Virginia report on jail cost, revenues and expenditures,

If the bill passes in the House, the Senate would review it on “Crossover Day’” on Tuesday. “Crossover Day” is the midpoint of the session where bills passed in one chamber are considered by the other.

House, Senate agree to extend bipartisan state literacy act

(Sen. Louise Lucas/General Assembly photo)

(Del. Carrie Coyner/General Assembly photo)

BY KATIE CASTELLANI
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

RICHMOND – The Senate and House unanimously voted to extend the Virginia Literacy Act to students in fourth through eighth grade with the passage of a pair of bipartisan bills.

The Virginia Literacy Act, which unanimously passed both chambers of the assembly last year and will go into effect for the 2024-2025 school year, is aimed at boosting literacy rates for students in kindergarten through third grade. The act requires schools across the state to establish evidence-based reading intervention programs, a key component of which is hiring one reading specialist for every 550 students who oversees students’ literacy progress.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, both patroned the act last year but decided to propose HB 1526 and SB 1175 to expand it after the last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that Virginia’s fourth-graders performed below the national average in reading for the first time in 30 years and had the largest drop in the nation.

“Schools in Virginia are in the midst of a reading crisis,” Coyner wrote in a Jan. 15 op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Those very same fourth-graders whose performance sounded the alarms of catastrophic learning loss need and deserve access to the evidence-based instruction they require.”

Lucas also emphasized that the students included in the current Virginia Literacy Act will be in the fourth grade by the time it takes effect and need more support.

“If we do not act then these children will enter school and classrooms that we know do not have the resources they need to teach them to read,” Lucas said while presenting the bill to the Senate Education and Health committee on Jan. 19.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been a vocal supporter of the implementation and expansion of the Virginia Literacy Act and recently visited a local elementary school to promote the bills.

“This is all being done on a bipartisan basis. Because there’s no disagreement, that when our children are equipped with, with the ability to read, then they can accomplish all kinds of things. So it’s a very exciting moment,” Youngkin said.

Despite Youngkin’s advocacy for the bills, his proposed budget for this fiscal year only provides funding to fully expand the Virginia Literacy Act through the fifth grade, Coyner’s bill passed with an amendment to provide one reading specialist for every 1,100 students in grades sixth through eighth. Lucas’s bill passed the Senate without any amendments.

Other supporters include representatives from local school districts, the Virginia State Literacy Association, CASA Virginia, Virginia Education Association and Virginia PTA. Jenna Alexander, President-Elect of Virginia PTA, highlighted the economic benefits of expanding the Virginia Literacy Act.

“What we’ve been seeing over the past couple years is even though we have a really robust system of intervention, that intervention hasn’t really been moving the dial on changing students’ literacy skills,” Alexander said. “This ultimately becomes a really wise investment, it invests in our kids right now, in fourth grade, moving through eighth grade, so that within seven years, you would wind up spending less money on reading instruction and intervention.”

Samira Nematollahi, a student at the University of Virginia’s state and local government policy clinic, worked closely with Coyner and Lucas to form the bills. Nematollahi highlighted the importance of providing support in middle school where literacy is not usually taught.

“This offers a really important intervention for those students as well, so that we don’t have a large cohort of students who graduate from high school and, and have below grade level reading proficiency,” Nematollahi said.

Delegate proposes resolution to honor daughter, others with Trisomy conditions

(Del. Phillip Scott/General Assembly photo)

BY BEN de LEMOS
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

RICHMOND – Nearly four years ago, doctors told Del. Phillip Scott, R-Spotsylvania, and his pregnant wife, Elizabeth, that their daughter may not live to see her first birthday. 

Scott became tearful as he explained the diagnosis, a rare and life threatening disease called Edward’s syndrome (trisomy 18). Scott’s daughter, Brianna, is now 3. To honor her lifelong battle with the disease, Scott has proposed a resolution to establish March as Trisomy Awareness Month.

        “At the time, the medical community had defined Edwards’ syndrome as ‘not compatible with life’, and we were told she probably wouldn’t survive her first year,” Scott said, holding back tears. “Her first name, Brianna, means strength, and we gave her Joy as her middle name, and for three and a half years she’s lived up to her name every day.”

Trisomy is defined as a condition in which an extra copy of a chromosome is present in some or all of the body’s cells, causing developmental abnormalities. The most common forms of trisomy include Down syndrome (trisomy 21), Edwards’ syndrome (trisomy 18), and Patau syndrome (trisomy 13). 

         Scott said he hopes to help shift the medical community’s perception of trisomy disorders through resolution HJ 510. The resolution, which was proposed at the General Assembly on Jan. 10,  would help spread awareness of the trisomy conditions, including Edwards’ syndrome, Down syndrome and Patau syndrome. 

         “In the 60s and 70s, Down syndrome was also considered incompatible with life,” Scott said. “Now, Down syndrome and Edwards’ syndrome no longer hold this distinction. The medical community is learning that these people are worthy of life, and can live fulfilling lives surrounded by loving families.”

Scott and his wife have set out to use what time Brianna has to help support people with trisomy across the state.

Brianna was named the local Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Champion in 2021, according to Tracy Jones, Senior Director, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, Children’s National Hospital Foundation. 

As Champion, Brianna’s story and photos were featured on fundraising materials to inspire those in the community to donate to Children’s National. The Scotts shared their story at an event that raised money for a new transport ventilator along with a freezer for every room in the Children’s National neonatal intensive care unit, according to Jones.

“Trisomy Awareness Month will only continue her incredible story,” Scott said. “It gives her a legacy that can honor the trisomy community and bring awareness to these amazing individuals. The more people that are aware, more data can be collected, more conversations that need to happen can begin, and with all this new information, we can find better treatments for people with trisomy.”

Scott’s resolution has received praise from trisomy awareness groups across Virginia, and across the country, disability activist groups have pledged their support for Trisomy Awareness Month.

“The disability community is strongest when we all work together,” said Kandi Pickard, President & CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society. “March is already an important month for the Down syndrome community as we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day on the 21st. Scott’s resolution is an opportunity to raise awareness for Trisomy conditions like Trisomy 21 and for our communities to work together toward greater acceptance and inclusion.”

Jennifer Case, executive director for the Virginia Down Syndrome Association, said that Scott’s resolution would help promote inclusivity for members of the trisomy community in everyday society.

“We’re always happy to see measures being taken to increase awareness of the trisomy conditions,” Case said. “But we can’t just talk about the issues without seeing real action. There is still great disparity in the available support for marginalized communities, who don’t have access to the best medical care that individuals with trisomy need.”

Case said increasing awareness had a positive influence on the Down syndrome community, especially in regards to inclusivity and better quality support for families. She said that she hoped to see continued improvement with the advances in technology and health care in Virginia. 

“VDSA was founded 40 years ago, in 1983,” Case said. “In 40 years, we’ve seen the life expectancy for people with trisomy 21 [go from 25 to over 60 years.] People with Down syndrome now own businesses, have families of their own, and can be true members of their community. With increased awareness of trisomy 13 and 18, I hope we can see similar improvement in the lives of those afflicted, and help them to reach the highest quality of life possible.”

House advances bill on notifications for teen antidepressants

(Del. Timothy Anderson/General Assembly photo)

BY LUCIA HELMERS
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

RICHMOND – A bill prohibiting teenagers from receiving certain kinds of antidepressants without parental consent passed the Health, Welfare and Institutions subcommittee in party-line 10-8 vote after some amendments.

The bill, HB 1389, was proposed by Del. Timothy Anderson, R-Virginia Beach. Anderson originally introduced the bill as blocking teenagers from receiving controlled substances, rather than just drugs classified as SSIRS, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

“If [the depression] is so bad that we need prescription medication for treatment, in my opinion, we should bring the parents into that equation,” Anderson said. “Especially if they’re severely depressed and prescribing the medication may make them more suicidal.”

Anderson brought Scott Johnson, the general counsel of  the Medical Society of Virginia, to the subcommittee for support for this bill. Johnson, however, affirmed certain fears from other delegates that adolescents will not be able to receive care. 

“The last thing we want is a kid not getting the medication they need because we know they’ll end up in the emergency room,” Johnson said. “That is a valid concern amongst others.”

The amendments made to this bill were spurred by other delegates’ concerns about teenagers accessing other medicine without parental consent. Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, was concerned about teenagers’ access to medicine in emergency situations. 

“I would like to take you up on your offer to change the word medications to SSRI,” Adams said. “In an emergency situation, an SSRI is not going to be the drug of choice.”

Multiple public commenters attended the subcommittee meeting to speak on this bill. Most opposed, although there were a few supporters.

A community member identified as Vic N. via Zoom was in favor of this bill trusting that it will strengthen the bonds between children and parents. 

“Why is it that children are always hiding things from their parents, but it is ok for the state to stick their necks in there,” said Vic. “The state is absolutely not the controller of kids, it is the parents.”

Many of the other public commenters were against this bill, including Emily Moore, policy analyst at Voices for Virginia’s Children. She noted that many teenagers lack access to mental health facilities. 

“This goes against the current practice that allows medical autonomy for older youth and what ultimately constrains some older youth from receiving the mental health treatment they need,” Moore said. 

The bill returned to the subcommittee Thursday with amendments altering the bill to limit teenagers’ access to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. This bill continued to receive pushback from some delegates, including Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington.

“If a child believes that their parents will find out, even through this backdoor way, then they’re less likely to get that treatment,” Hope said. “I just have a feeling this will have a chilling effect.”

A growing problem: Virginia schools struggle to keep up with a skyrocketing number of English learners 

(ESOL teacher Fabiana Parker works with one of her 43 ELL students in her classroom at Thornburg Middle School on Jan. 27. Photo by Ale Egocheaga.)

BY ALE EGOCHEAGA AND JACKIE LLANOS
STAFF WRITERS
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

A student laughed as Fabiana Parker flipped orange flash cards to reveal silly portraits corresponding to emotions: silly, bored, angry, sad. Parker uses these cards to teach newcomers to the English language learning program at Thornburg Middle School. 

Walking through the school hallways, it is easy to see why Parker is Virginia’s 2023 Teacher of the Year. Students crowd around her to wish her a good morning and chat with her before classes start. Teachers credit her for giving them a new understanding of English language learners (ELLs). Parker has a connection with students overcoming the language barrier because she was once an English learner too. 

Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Parker’s family moved to London when she was 15 years old. Unlike her students, she didn’t have a teacher dedicated to helping her learn English and acclimate to her surroundings. Going through those obstacles as the only Brazilian in her classes kickstarted her passion for teaching and language learning. Parker started her career as a Spanish teacher in Boise, Idaho, but later transitioned to being a teacher for the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program when she moved to Virginia. 

“There was always the fear, ‘Oh, maybe my English is not good enough,’ even though I had gone through college,” Parker said.

Now, her days start with teaching all levels of language acquisition at Thornburg Middle School before driving to Spotsylvania High School after a brief lunch break. There, she has her own classes for students closer to exiting the English language learning program. Schools might use ESOL teachers in two ways: assisting ELLs in a class with native speakers or teaching their own classes with only ELLs. Parker does both.

In total, she educates 66 students from 6th through 12th grade, but she says that is not nearly as chaotic as managing the 110 students she had in Culpeper County. Overall, the number of ELLs has increased by 20% statewide. But both Spotsylvania and Culpeper counties have seen a 75% and 82% increase in ELLs, respectively, in the past five years, according to the Virginia Department of Education. 

The number of ELLs has increased in Virginia as the state has accepted more Afghan refugees and people from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continue to migrate to escape poverty and violence.

“Although Virginia does a good job educating ESOL students, it could be much better,” Parker said. “Other states spend a lot more money on the ESOL program than we do, and I think as the population has been growing we have struggled to keep up.”

In terms of spending, Virginia has the worst gap in the country in state revenue — 48% less — per student between districts serving the most and fewest ELLs, according to a report from The Education Trust non-profit.

Four bills were introduced at the General Assembly to alleviate the need for funds and ESOL teachers. Del. John Avoli, R-Stauton, and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, are leading the bipartisan effort to establish college and career readiness programs targeted toward ELLs and incentive grants for teachers who earn an ESOL endorsement. While the House rejected Avoli’s proposals, Hashmi’s identical bills, SB 1109 and SB 1118, remain in the Senate Public Education Subcommittee, which she chairs. 

Beyond learning a language

SB 1109 would give annual reimbursement grants of up to $500 per ELL student enrolled in high school to any school division to expand access to college and career readiness. The board of education is required to prioritize grants for school divisions with less than 3,000 students or poverty rates above 20%. Hashmi’s impact statement estimates that the maximum amount of grants would cost $14,400,500.

Micael De Almeida spoke about the corresponding House bill, HB 1823, during an event held by the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights on Jan. 11. De Almeida is a member of the student assembly at Richard Bland College of William and Mary. He credits his educational success to the ESOL courses he took at Hermitage High School. When De Almeida started high school in 2018 there were 130 ELLs, but now 221 students are part of the ESOL program at the Henrico school, according to VDOE. 

“I happen to be taking honors English today in college thanks to the great ESL system that I had in my high school,” De Almeida said. “So, it’s really crazy for me to think about how when I came from Brazil in 2018, I could only speak three things, ‘Hi, how are you and bye.’ I couldn’t write a sentence. I couldn’t speak.”

He said the bills can help current ELLs not only acquire new language skills but also find a sense of community as he did.

“This is not just a matter of ESL education, but general education,” he said. “Just think about it like this: if those students cannot learn English at those high schools, how do we expect them to succeed past those SOLs, be able to take AP courses or college preparatory courses, graduate and go to college?”

Virginia schools require all students to pass five Standards of Learning tests to graduate. ELLs have to meet this requirement before they turn 21, which Parker says puts students who migrate when they are older at a greater disadvantage to graduate.

In the 2021-2022 school year, ELLs had low SOL pass rates — 32.29% passed the English reading test, 18.46% passed the English writing test, 29.88% passed the history and social science test, 36.13% passed the math test and 19.86% passed the science test, according to VDOE. During the same school year, 24.63% of ELLs dropped out of schools across Virginia.

Finding a path that accommodates ELL students who have overcome hardships is essential, Parker said. 

Katian Corado, one of Parker’s former students, credits her for helping her finish her high school degree after getting pregnant. Corado immigrated to Culpeper from Guatemala when she was 14 years old and got pregnant during her junior year, she said. She wanted to drop out, but Parker helped modify an education plan to secure a high school diploma, Corado said. She recalled the moments in which Parker calmed her tears of frustration when she couldn’t grasp the English language. 

“She earned my heart from the first moment I met her,” Corado said.

While Corado would have liked to attend university or community college, school administrators were not equipped to help her navigate the process as an undocumented immigrant, she said.

“They were like, ‘oh okay, forget it,’ and they wouldn’t say anything else, wouldn’t give me another option or say, ‘look, you have this option since you don’t have a social security number,’” Corado said. “Then, I felt very sad because I would have liked to continue studying after I had my baby.” 

Although she didn’t get to further her education through conventional methods, she is working on opening a nail salon soon, she said.

“Ms. Fabiana treated us as if we were her family, her kids,” Corado said. “She was not only in charge of educating us, she also provided us that motherly love that a lot of us in ESOL were missing.”

Helping students deal with trauma and standardized testing

Despite being beloved by her students, Parker feels she isn’t doing enough to help students, she said. Any given day may include one on one lessons with a new student who has no English background or dividing her attention among as many as 16 students who need help refining their academic vocabulary. She is the only ESOL teacher at Thornburg Middle School, meaning 43 ELLs depend on her for physical and emotional help. She must also be tactful in helping students who have escaped traumatic situations, she said. Although most of her students are Latinx — 91,443 ELLs statewide are Latinx, according to VDOE — she has begun teaching more students from Afghanistan after the Taliban took over the country, she said.

(Parker practices listening skills with two students who are new to the ESOL program while the rest of her class takes a practice test on computers on Jan. 27. Photo by Jackie Llanos)

“Some of my Afghan students, they may speak their language — Farsi or northern Pashto or southern Pashto — but they cannot read or write in their language,” Parker said. “So when you don’t have that first language, where you cannot read and write in the first language, it is much more difficult to learn English, not impossible, but much more difficult.

We have to start with the basics: letter sounds. I have to teach numbers; their number system is different; the letter system is different. We write from left to right; they write from right to left. So it is a much more delicate process and a much longer process, but it’s successful. A lot of my students do quite well.”

Afghan families have resettled to Virginia, mainly northern Virginia, because of the refugee center that existed in Quantico, said Mariam Kakar, Virginia’s program manager for the Women for Afghan Women non-profit. Kakar, who used to be a special needs teacher, hears concerns from parents whose children’s mental health is suffering, she said. 

“A lot of these young adults or these teenagers are going to end up suicidal, or depressed or maybe connect with the wrong people,” Kakar said. “I want them to become successful, and I think that they need more support emotionally because they went through trauma, too. 

They left their home behind. They left their schools, their friends, their clothes, their furniture, their everything. But, they’re not allowed to just be kids now here either because they have so much to intake.”

This time of the year, Parker has to help all her students prepare for the WIDA Consortium’s English proficiency assessment. The test consists of four sections: listening, reading, speaking and writing. The results of the test determine which students will continue in the ESOL program, with an average of 4.4 indicating they are ready to exit. But even if the students no longer need daily help from Parker, she is federally required to monitor their progress and make sure other teachers are providing accommodations.

(Two responses to a writing assignment asking students to write a paragraph about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two students are level three on the WIDA scale, though the student who wrote the paragraph on the left is better at speaking, and the student who wrote the paragraph on the right is better at writing, Parker said. Although students may be on the same level, they have different areas they excel, she said.  Photo by Jackie Llanos.)

On top of that, ESOL teachers have to file paperwork for each of their students to track their progress, said Sharon Fitzgerald, an ESOL teacher at Osbourn High School in Manassas City. Fitzgerald has been an ESOL teacher for 11 years and worked alongside Parker at Eastern View High School, she said. Currently, she manages caseloads of more than 40 students in the 11th and 12th grades, she said. 

“That’s also part of the reason why teachers don’t necessarily want to teach ESOL students because there’s extra work that has to be done, and there’s no extra money for it,” Fitzgerald said.

Reflecting wages

The grant incentives from SB 1118 would give ESOL teachers extra money for the extra work they are doing. Public school teachers who obtain endorsements to teach English as a second language for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade would get a grant of $5,000 the first year and an annual grant of $2,500 while the endorsement is active. This proposal also prioritizes smaller schools with poverty rates above 20%.

Manassas City likely would not see much of the funds from these proposals, Fitzgerald said. The school division has seen a 21% increase of ELLs in the past five years, with 579 currently enrolled at Osbourn High School, according to VDOE. Looking at the statistics, Fitzgerald says counties like Culpeper and Spotsylvania are in a much dire need of the funding that Hashmi’s bills would provide. 

“The population [of ELLs in Culpeper County] is just growing,” Fitzgerald said. “So, they are where northern Virginia was 12, 15 years ago. They’re behind. When Fabiana and I worked there, it was just exploding.” 

As school divisions across the state struggle to find teachers to fill the 3,573 unfilled positions, it will become even harder to find teachers willing to pay for an ESOL teaching endorsement without having the guarantee of earning more money, Fitzgerald said. This is why providing a monetary incentive for teachers is crucial, she said.

The House Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee voted unanimously to kill Avoli’s bills on Jan. 25. Republican Del. Nick Freitas, who represents Culpeper, was one of three delegates who voted against the bills at a committee meeting on Jan. 23. Freitas was not available for an interview.  

“How can you possibly oppose the development of an English language for English learners?” Avoli said. “It’s a small pittance to make life easier for not only the kids, but for the parents.”