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VDOE and VDH release new guidance urging all Virginia elementary schools to require mask wearing

Virginia’s Health and Education departments are urging all elementary school students and staff to wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status, until vaccines are available to children under 12.

The guidance released Wednesday stops short of mandating facial coverings for public school students, which has been required under an order from the state health commissioner, Dr. Norman Oliver. The directive, which requires students and staff in all K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, will not be extended after it expires on July 25, the two departments said in a news release.

On Wednesday, the departments updated guidance that still prioritizes in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, days after the American Academy of Pediatrics released its own guidance urging everyone to wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status amid the spread of the delta variant of the novel coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 83% of new COVID-19 cases across the country are the delta variant, up from 50% during the first week of July. At least nine states have created laws prohibiting mask mandates in schools, like Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina and Texas. Last week, California announced a mandate to require masks in schools but quickly reversed course.

The guidance urges wearing masks in elementary schools, but it is more lenient with middle and high schoolers. State officials said that school districts should require masks at a minimum for unvaccinated older students. Schools should consider universal mask-wearing if spread in school becomes severe or community transmission of a certain COVID-19 variant, such as delta, that spreads more easily among children begins to increase substantially.

“Virginia has followed the science throughout this pandemic, and that’s what we continue to do,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in the news release. “This guidance takes into consideration recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and will provide necessary flexibility for school divisions while ensuring a safe, healthy, and world-class learning environment for Virginia’s students.”

A spokesperson for the governor said it was important to “empower” school divisions to make their own decisions on masks. School divisions in the state have seen varied responses to mask mandates, from protests at school board meetings to pleas from community members to remain masked up.

“This guidance empowers these local leaders to make data-driven decisions in consultation with their local health departments,” said Alena Yarmosky, spokesperson for Northam. “This is consistent with the approach we have taken on K-12 schools throughout this pandemic — recognizing that vaccination eligibility, community transmission, and disease burden vary greatly from school to school and community to community.” She also said that school districts have the option to confirm immunization records but should consult their school board counsel.

Evidence has largely shown that children are less likely to get sick or die from COVID-19. However, some local schools are still shutting down due to the virus’s spread.

Broad Rock Elementary School in South Richmond, which is open for summer school, shut down on July 15 after a student tested positive for COVID-19, Superintendent Jason Kamras said in a weekly newsletter. It’s unclear how many people the school division had to contact during its contact-tracing stage, but during public comment at Monday’s School Board meeting, parents reported being required to quarantine. The school reopened Monday.

Richmond Public Schools is still opting to continue universal mask-wearing, Kamras said in a statement on Wednesday. RPS, which has a majority-Black student body, was the last locality in the state to reopen for any in-person instruction due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases. Currently, just under half of adults in Richmond are fully vaccinated. In neighboring Chesterfield and Henrico counties, those rates jump to 61% and 64.3%, respectively, according to VDH data.

“Essentially, the announcement doesn’t change anything for us,” Kamras said. “We’re maintaining maximum vigilance.”

Officials for the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover all said they are reviewing the guidance but didn’t offer details as to when they’ll announce their own policies. Currently, all are abiding by the mask mandate put in place by the state commissioner.

All school systems in Virginia are required to offer five days of in-person instruction beginning this fall thanks to Senate Bill 1303, which the General Assembly passed in February.

'Overjoyed': RRHA honors nine college-bound students with scholarships

Nothing was going to stop Mikel Hudson from becoming the first person in her family to go to college.

Higher education was her personal mission, she wrote in an essay to a local scholarship committee. If her financial aid did not cover the cost, she resolved to simply find a way to pay for it.

On Wednesday evening, Hudson was one of nine college-bound students who live in Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority-managed communities to be honored by the housing authority’s board of commissioners with a scholarship. Each student will receive $4,000 to support their pursuit of a college degree.

“I was overjoyed,” said Hudson, 18, recalling her reaction when she learned that she was selected for the honor. “I was just screaming.”

The scholarship ensures Hudson will be able to enroll this fall at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she plans to study business.

Along with Hudson, this year’s scholarship recipients are:

  • Ailyah Blackshear, who will enroll at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College;
  • Nyla Cooper, Virginia Union University;
  • Shytina Huey, J. Sargeant Reynolds;
  • Devante Jackson, J. Sargeant Reynolds;
  • Varchon Laws, Old Dominion University;
  • Mekhi Lucas, Virginia Union;
  • Shanaya Peck, who is undecided; and
  • Dai’Quana Washington, Radford University.

Blackshear, who graduated from Armstrong High School, plans to seek a degree in computer engineering and pursue her passion for robotics. The honor holds special significance, she said.

“I want to make people proud,” Blackshear said. “I want others, people like me, to know that they can do it, too, just send a message out there and inspire others to do bigger things.”

In the past decade, 89 students from RRHA communities have been awarded the so-called Tomorrow’s Promise scholarships.

“RRHA’s 2021 college bound scholarship winners prove that environment does not define ability,” said Stacey Daniels-Fayson, RRHA’s interim CEO, in a news release. “We are proud to be a part of the ‘village’ that nurtures and celebrates the spirit, creativity and hard work of our students who have overcome great obstacles to achieve and thrive in a challenging environment.”

Hudson grew up in Whitcomb Court in the city’s East End. Her family moved to the smaller Randolph public housing community when she was a teenager.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the hours she worked at Panera were cut from more than 40 a week to just 15. Her mother lost income when her work as an in-home caregiver dried up, so Hudson dipped into her savings — money she had set aside for a car — to help her family cover rent and pay bills.

At the same time, she was completing both an associate degree and high school diploma through Highland Springs High School’s Advanced College Academy, a partnership between Henrico County Public Schools and J. Sargeant Reynolds.

The program allowed her to pursue her interest in business and marketing, Hudson said. She’s spending this summer interning with the housing authority in its executive offices.

With the RRHA scholarship and another she earned, her remaining bill for her first semester is now less than $300 — a relief, she said. It will allow her to turn her attention to making the transition to college without loading up on extra shifts at work, she said. Now, all she has to do is count down the days until she moves into her new dorm.

Said Neil Kessler, chairman of RRHA’s board: “We couldn’t be prouder of these young men and women, and we wish them the best of luck and success going forward.”

Squirrels boss Lou DiBella bringing boxing to The Diamond: 'Take Me Out to the Brawl Game'

Long before Lou DiBella entered the minor league baseball industry as an owner, he promoted boxing matches. He continues in both roles, and will blend them on Aug. 26 at The Diamond.

DiBella, the president and managing general partner of the Richmond Flying Squirrels as well as a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, is bringing a boxing card to Richmond. It will be followed by a hip-hop show that DiBella referred to as “a mini-concert,” with Furious Five featuring Grandmaster Melle Mel and Scorpio.

The event’s name: “Take Me Out to the Brawl Game.”

DiBella said the night is scheduled to include about 10 matches. Gates open at 5:30 p.m., and the event begins with fights involving world-class amateurs at 6 p.m. The professional fights are scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Tickets go on sale Friday at, with prices ranging from $20 to $150 for the VIP level , and a 10% discount for those who purchase tickets in the first 48 hours (code: RFSBOXING). There is also a 20% military discount.

The Flying Squirrels are scheduled to play in Altoona, Pa., on Aug. 26, and set up near home plate at The Diamond that night will be a boxing ring occupied by professionals with a focus on the heavyweight class, amateurs and a women’s match.

DiBella relocated his Double-A baseball franchise from Norwich, Conn., to Richmond on Sept. 23, 2009, and “honestly, since we first moved, I said to myself, ‘One of these days, I’ll do a fight card at The Diamond,’” said DiBella, 61.

DiBella envisions The Diamond being replaced in the next few years as the Flying Squirrels continue to collaborate with VCU on a plan for a new stadium, and he considered late this season as an appropriate time for boxing at the ballpark that opened in 1985.

“We’re going to adapt this to The Diamond, and it will be really cool,” said DiBella, born and raised in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, and a graduate of Tufts University and Harvard Law School. “But it’s also an example of when we do have a new stadium, a new facility, this is the kind of innovative stuff we can do that we haven’t been doing because the new facility will be more user-friendly and more adaptable to other events.”

DiBella’s research indicates there hasn’t been a significant boxing show in Richmond since 2008, and it’s been longer since there was an outdoor boxing event in Richmond.

“I know there’s a big appetite for sports in Richmond, but I also know that there’s an appetite for stuff you haven’t experienced before. I think that’s what makes it appealing,” he said.

The 10-round main event will match heavyweights Jerry Forrest (26-4-1 with 20 KOs), who’s based in Newport News, and Amron Sands (11-1, nine KOs), from Orlando, Fla.

“I think heavyweights are sort of the big daddies of boxing, and people love to see heavyweights, so the main event features two heavyweights with really good records and should be a really, really good fight,” said DiBella, who formed a partnership in 2005 and for about $10 million bought the baseball franchise that is now the Flying Squirrels.

“The show is going to be heavily dominated by three heavyweight fights.”

That Forrest-Sands match will be preceded by several other fights involving pros in various weight classes and three amateur bouts. The boxing will be followed by the hip-hop, mini-concert.

“The musical main event,” said DiBella.

A disc jockey will provide music before and during the matches. Ringside seating will be available, but most fans will observe from The Diamond’s lower bowl. The stadium seats 9,560, and DiBella would love a sellout, but is not projecting one.

“I want people to see what I do and what a fun boxing show can be,” he said. “We’re not setting it up with the idea of 9,000 people. My anticipation is in the 3,000 sort of range.”

Concessions on sale at The Diamond for Flying Squirrels games will be available on fight night.

The evening will begin with amateur fights featuring U.S. Marines stationed at Fort Lejeune, N.C., who are members of that service branch’s boxing team, and some of the top amateurs in the country.

The event is scheduled to be carried live by Fite.TV and will be broadcast on a delayed basis in 30 million basic cable homes in the U.S., according to DiBella Entertainment. In case of rain, “Take Me Out to the Brawl Game” will be held on Aug. 27.

National opioid settlement could bring Virginia $530 million

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Youngkins received 95% tax cut due to conservation status of their horse farm

GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin and his wife last year successfully petitioned Fairfax County to designate their horse farm as an agricultural district, which led to a 95% reduction in the taxes they pay on the 31.5-acre property in Great Falls that surrounds their home.

The agricultural district reduced the Youngkins’ real estate tax bill on the farm by a total of $151,844.90 in 2020 and 2021 combined, according to public information that the Fairfax County Department of Tax Administration provided to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement that the couple sought the agricultural designation as part of a commitment to environmental stewardship and conservation.

“The Youngkins made their home in Fairfax County in order to meaningfully enjoy and care for the unique land and habitat of the area,” the statement said. “The Youngkins are wholly committed to keeping the land protected and preserved, and remain in full compliance with all local, state and federal laws, regulations, tax codes and ordinances.”

They and other neighbors maintain a trail that is mostly on the Youngkins’ property and is open to hikers and horseback riders and are thrilled to share it with others, the statement said, “so they can also enjoy the beauty of the land and the results of the Youngkins’ conservation efforts.”

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in June 2020 unanimously approved a request by the Youngkins that their farm become an agricultural and forestal district, a designation allowed by state and local law for property owners who meet certain criteria and agree not to develop their land for eight years.

The decision was consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan, which encourages such districts in order to preserve the rural character of the environmentally sensitive area, according to county records.

The districts “encourage the preservation of significant tracts of agricultural and forested land throughout the County by providing a reduced real estate tax assessment in exchange for a commitment to preserve the land for the length of the term,” read a 110-page report from county government staff, who recommended approval.

The Youngkin farm is one of 43 such districts in Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest areas in the state and Virginia’s largest jurisdiction by population with more than 1.1 million people.

The tax break for the agricultural district involves the Youngkin farm, but not the house they built in 2005. The Youngkins first applied for the agricultural district in October 2019 for their property, Mane Manor LLC and Normandy Farm LLC. They opted not to include the land that their house sits on, which would have lowered the tax bill even further.

The seven parcels making up the farm were assessed at $6,818,370 in 2020, which would have resulted in a tax bill of $80,695 at market value. But at the agricultural district rate, the assessment dropped to $376,900, and the resulting taxes owed for 2020 were $4,460, a reduction of nearly 95%.

The assessed value of the farm this year is $6,750,040, which would have resulted in a tax payment of $79,211.72 at market value, according to the county. But with the agricultural district, the assessed value drops to $306,930 and results in a 2021 tax payment of $3,601.82 — a reduction of more than 95%.

A state government panel called the State Land Evaluation and Advisory Council establishes the lower rates for the districts and they fluctuate.

At the time of approval, the farm property included two outdoor riding arenas, stables, horse pastures, and storage buildings. Equestrian facilities are typical in the area, along with stately homes, pastures lined with short, wood fences, and scattered woodlands, according to county records.

County records from before the application was granted indicated that the Youngkins wanted to add a horse boarding service and new, indoor riding arena on the farm, but that the property was intended for their personal use. Suzanne Youngkin is a member of the Virginia Tech Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center Advisory Council.

Conservation officials analyzed the property as part of the application, and the Youngkins agreed to abide by a soil and water conservation plan and forestry plan, and are restoring trees and vegetation to keep a large part of the land in its natural state.

The properties on the farm were previously owned by various people, and the Youngkins bought the land over time, making the most recent purchase in 2019.

Youngkin, a former private equity executive, has contributed $12 million of his own money to date in his effort to win the governorship. He faces Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor, in the November election.

In early 2020, there was some confusion over what the Youngkins intended to do on the farm.

Some neighbors emailed members of the Fairfax County Planning Commission saying they would object to any planned commercial operation or boarding business, according to a county transcript of a 2020 planning meeting.

John Ulfelder, the Dranesville District planning commissioner, noted at a meeting that the agricultural and forestal district application was strictly a determination on whether the property met the requirements for that district and to be eligible for real estate tax relief.

“Moreover, the applicant ... makes it abundantly clear that she has no intention of running a commercial riding and boarding stable on the property. It is intended solely for the applicant’s personal use,” Ulfelder said at the meeting, adding that he had visited the property and wanted to personally thank the Youngkins for reinvigorating equestrian use of the property and for good stewardship of the land.

Later, at the June 2020 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Suzanne Youngkin said that while she didn’t intend commercial use, she was leaving open the possibility that she would “share” one of the barns, according to a video on the county’s website.

The Youngkins did not seek a commercial operation and don’t intend to, the campaign said. They overhauled the farm, according to the Normandy Farm website, which calls it a “Premier, boutique barn and historic horse farm located just 18 miles from the heart of Washington, D.C. dedicated to the well-being and training of equine athletes. ... With state-of-the-art facilities, full-service care, the area’s top trainers and care-givers, attention to detail and a club-like environment, The Stable at Normandy Farm excels at providing a high-end, healthy environment for horses and riders alike.”

The Youngkin campaign said the training and boarding on the farm is minimal.

Cleaner air expected in Va. on Thursday after wildfire smoke triggered a health alert

A hazy, potentially harmful pall of smoke passed over Virginia on Wednesday, a downwind consequence of the wildfires raging across portions of central Canada and the western United States.

Air pollution monitors in the Richmond area and elsewhere in the state reached the “code orange” category, which is a rare concentration for our area and considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.

By late morning, those readings prompted a health alert from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

During code orange conditions, people with heart and lung diseases and active children and adults are encouraged to limit or reschedule any strenuous outdoor activity. The small particulate matter found in wildfire smoke can aggravate asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.

What caused it?

Large wildfires burning in central Canada near the border of Manitoba and Ontario are the main culprit for the smoke in our region and in the Northeast.

But generally, smoke from fires throughout the western U.S. is also fanning out to the east along the curving path of the high-altitude jet stream. On Wednesday, satellites detected smoke layers spreading as far south as the Rio Grande and as far northeast as Canada’s Maritime Provinces.

Climate change is worsening the hotter and drier weather patterns in western North America, which is an important factor contributing to the more extreme fire behavior in recent years.

Early in the week, that smoke was mainly well above ground level in Virginia, so we were able to witness a smoky tinge to the sun and moon without breathing degraded air. An uptick in pollutants was noticeable on Monday and Tuesday with moderate (code yellow) air quality.

But more of that smoke reached ground here on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. According to Dan Salkovitz, meteorologist at the DEQ, this was due to two factors: subsidence — descending air — along with convergence ahead of a cold front crossing the Appalachian mountains. On Tuesday afternoon, improved air quality was already showing up in western Pennsylvania, western Maryland and West Virginia.

The sticky air mass ahead of that front also worsened the haze.

“When the humidity is up, the water vapor is up, the particles grow in size because they’re hygroscopic,” said Salkovitz. “They’re absorbing.”

When will it improve?

Some short-term improvement is expected in Virginia on Thursday due to a cleaner, drier air mass blowing in behind a cold front.

The DEQ predicts good air quality (code green) for Richmond, Roanoke, Winchester and Hampton Roads. The smoky air will take longest to clear out of southeastern Virginia, however.

Dew points on Thursday will range from the mid-50s to lower 60s across the commonwealth, versus the haze-inducing mid-60s to lower 70s that were widespread on Wednesday.

In the long term, we may see more smoky days. Those distant fires continue to burn, and the ingredients for an active fire season in the western U.S. will persist into the fall. If the jet stream pattern returns to a similar setup in the weeks ahead, with a wave rippling down from Canada to the Great Lakes, more smoke could come our way.

And if cold fronts fail to sweep the polluted air out to sea, high pressure systems could trap residual smoke as well.

What do the readings mean for air quality?

Air quality is broken into color-coded categories based on health risk, and focuses on two major types of pollution: ozone and particles.

Those are based on measurements from air quality stations, which are situated near most of the major metro areas in the nation.

The concentration of particle pollution is reported hourly, measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. High values are obviously harmful, but so is persistence. If the 24-hour average exceeds 35, that’s considered a day that exceeds clean air standards set by the EPA.

Richmond, for example, trended from a concentration of 34.1 at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, to 38 at 7 a.m. Wednesday, then rose to 44.3 at 2 p.m.

Sunday’s readings were rather low by comparison, mainly between 5 and 8.

Salkovitz said chances were good that Wednesday would turn out to have a code orange average based on the readings through midafternoon, but it would take until midnight to know for sure.

The Winchester area had some of the highest concentrations of pollution in the state on Wednesday morning but saw improvement during the afternoon in the wake of the cold front.

When’s the last time it was like this here?

The most recent code orange day for particulate matter in the Richmond area was at the Bryan Park monitor on July 5, 2021, which averaged 36 micrograms per cubic meter following holiday fireworks. That reading is still preliminary. Prior to that, the last instance locally was June 13, 2008.

Richmond saw no particulate code orange days during the 2010s, but 45 days between 1999 and 2008 (relative to tighter current standards). Some of those spikes were the result of closer fires in the Great Dismal Swamp, North Carolina, Shenandoah area and even Quebec.

In records going back to 1999, Richmond’s highest particulate pollution day was Aug. 8, 2001, at 52 micrograms per cubic meter.

The thresholds for ozone are different. Richmond most recently had a code orange for ozone in May, though exceedances have declined dramatically since the 1990s due to cleaner vehicles and stricter emissions rules.

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