Virginia’s latest set of statewide measures to contain COVID-19 demonstrates a hard truth: Roughly eight months after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, the public health crisis lingers in our communities.
So does the economic apprehension. As the virus maintains its enervating timeline, the Dec. 30 deadline for spending attached to March’s $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act aid package is fast approaching.
Virginia received a little more than $3 billion of that funding, and Gov. Ralph Northam and local leaders have worked to address issues within some key federal constraints: The money has to be used on necessary expenditures caused by the pandemic; the causes cannot be accounted for in Virginia’s most recent budget as of March 27; and the expenses have to be incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.
Yet, with six weeks left in 2020, reality is here: If winter is a vehicle for a wave of more severe community spread — and related economic struggles — what happens next? If Congress chooses obstruction over action on another round of COVID-19 relief, how will the next few months look for Virginia localities and households in financial distress?
High interest in the Re-Employing Virginians (REV) program shows time is of the essence with COVID-19 relief. We need solutions that promote recovery beyond the pandemic, not just patch financial holes in disrupted systems that struggle to outlast it.
On Oct. 30, Northam announced the creation of the REV opportunity, which seeks to assist Virginians whose jobs were affected by COVID-19 and retrain them in high-demand sectors. The initiative is supported by $30 million in CARES Act funding and provides two kinds of one-time scholarships: $3,000 for qualifying full-time programs and $1,500 for part-time or short-term, noncredit FastForward training programs.
By Nov. 10, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) announced almost 70,000 visits were made to the REV webpage, with roughly 16,000 people acting to learn more about the program and possibly file an application. Per a chart from VCCS on its blog, demand was statewide, with interest in opportunities at all 23 community colleges. Northern Virginia Community College had the highest tally at a little more than 4,800 sign-ups. In the Richmond region, Reynolds and John Tyler community colleges had nearly 2,500 combined sign-ups.
“These numbers come as no surprise,” said VCCS Chancellor Glenn DuBois in a statement. “We know many Virginians have lost their jobs or have had their work hours cut back due to the coronavirus’ economic hit. Now it’s up to us to help them find a path to a better future through our workforce/career training. Time is of the essence, and we’re confident our dedicated people at colleges around Virginia will respond to this challenge.”
What’s driving the demand? While unemployment figures steadily have declined since the early months of the coronavirus, Virginians still need help — and some occupations continue to get hit harder than others. According to the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC), during the week ending Nov. 7, 91,960 people filed continued claims and another 9,909 filed initial claims. The VEC added that more than half of claims were in the accommodation/food service, health care, administrative support and retail trade industries.
And with just weeks to go until the Dec. 30 deadline, the governor’s office continues to distribute CARES Act dollars to a slew of urgent needs plaguing families — $3 million for free clinics, $7 million for food banks, $60 million for municipal utility relief and more.
What separates the REV program from other initiatives is that it jump-starts the future. While the funding is a limited-time offer and eligible students must sign up by Dec. 14, VCCS said most REV enrollees will take classes during the spring 2021 semester. And career training can bring yearslong benefits for workers who acquire new skills, for employers who strengthen their teams and for the commonwealth to position the readiness of its workforce to attract new employers.
In a Monday tweet advertising the REV program, VCCS vowed to help applicants get back on their feet in a matter of “weeks, not years.”
We need relief that promotes recovery in the commonwealth and across the country. If another round of federal aid materializes, lawmakers need to remove the time pressure of a year-end deadline and give local leaders the chance to develop a successful, long-term strategy.
— Chris Gentilviso