By Randy Arrington
SHENANDOAH, April 21 — On Tuesday afternoon, Virginia’s First Lady Pamela Northam and the commonwealth’s Secretary of Education Atif Qarni stopped in at Page County High School to offer both praise and support for local school officials.
“We heard they are doing amazing work here in Page County, and we wanted to come here and see it in person,” Northam said of her reason for visiting the high school. The state’s First Lady spoke with students, teachers and administrators during the 45-minute tour, offering encouragement during a tough school year.
“Hang in there. We are almost out of this terrible pandemic,” Northam said. “People are tired I know, but we are getting close.”
Earlier in the day, Northam and Qarni visited North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg, Mountain View Elementary in Rockingham County, and Bluestone Elementary in Harrisonburg sharing the same message and asking similar questions throughout the Shenandoah Valley.
“So are you guys glad to be back in class?” Northam asked students in Bobbi Comer’s Family and Consumer Science class at PCHS. A wave of affirmation sheepishly spread throughout the room, with bobbing heads affirming their muffled responses behind masks.
About 40 percent of high school students in Page County are still opting for remote learning, while about 15 percent of elementary students are learning from home. Page County Public Schools has offered some form of in-person instruction since the start of the school year at the elementary and middle school levels. High school students have been phased back in since November. However, after the holidays, the entire division went completely remote for a few weeks during the height of the pandemic this winter.
“Are you excited about SOLs?” Secretary Qarni asked PCHS students in a tone that implied he anticipated the moans and groans he received in response.
Deputy Secretary of Education Kathy Burcher also joined the tour through the Valley. Local school board members Duane Painter (Dist. 4) and Jackie Sullivan-Smoot (Dist. 5) were at PCHS on Tuesday to welcome the visitors, along with Superintendent Wendy Gonzales and assistant superintendents Eric Benson and Lance Moran. The group stayed busy during their visit at PCHS. They stopped in several classrooms, one of which spurred an impromptu version of “Happy Birthday” sung by Northam, Qarni and local schools officials for PCHS student Kylar Sullivan.
As Northam kept her brisk pace through the hallways, she stopped for a moment to chat with custodian Lewin Boston and presented him with one of her trademark “challenge coins.”
“This is the prettiest library I think I’ve ever seen,” Northam stated, noting the view of the Blue Ridge mountains from the PCHS library’s tall windows.
“Our view is basically the highway,” a member of the entourage could be heard saying as they admired the view. “So, this is amazing.”
Northam touted the General Assembly’s approval of Child Care Assistance funding for needing families. The deadline was extended to file applications and is now July 31. However, the overall tone of the stately visit was a simple, sincere “Thank you” and an encouraging “hang in there.”
“Your teachers are amazing,” the First Lady said. “I know it’s been tough. Keep up the good work.”
As she was exchanging goodbyes, noting the COVID-19 pandemic and touting the success of the vaccine distribution in Virginia — nearly 40 percent of the state’s population has received at least one dose — the First Lady said in an optimistic tone, “we’re hoping to have a great 4th of July.”
As the group prepared to exit, Northam left with one final message.
“Outstanding work my friends,” Northam told local school officials in the commons area of PCHS. “These kids are going to make it because of you.”
See more photos from the visit of Virginia’s First Lady Pamela Northam and Secretary of Education Atif Qarni on Tuesday, April 20 at Page County High School coming soon in our “Photo Gallery.”