By MIKE STILL
ABINGDON — Southwest Virginia faces a “heavy lift” from pandemic challenges to education, business and local government, regional leaders told Gov. Ralph Northam in a virtual roundtable meeting Friday.
Northam and state Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy’s virtual visit was hosted by the United Way of Southwest Virginia’s COVID Relief Council co-chair Mike Quillen, as leaders from the far southwest to Pulaski County talked about issues ranging from COVID-19 testing and broadband access to education and broader public health impacts from the pandemic.
Northam, who is on a statewide listening tour to learn about localities’ impacts from the pandemic, said that 77% of the state’s economy is based on small businesses at a time when more than 1 million state residents have filed for unemployment. Food insecurity, which affected about 9% of state residents before the pandemic, now impacts 22%.
“In Southwest Virginia, I can’t imagine what children are going through in education,” Northam said, adding that state education officials have worked to be flexible with school divisions’ reopening plans in the new school year.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Northam said.
Northam said the need for broadband has been demonstrated as schools on hybrid or remote opening plans need that access for students to get assignments and learning materials. While the state has budgeted $30 million for dealing with broadband needs, Northam said that need also extends to businesses as some people have had to work from home.
“I think there’s a lot of people who want to live in Southwest Virginia but don’t have job access,” Northam said.
Rick Nunley, human resources director for Universal Fibers in Bristol, Virginia, said that employee health during the pandemic has forced the company to find better ways for COVID-19 testing to mitigate quarantine impacts. While the pandemic affected the company’s overall business by about 40%, Nunley said state and federal emergency unemployment benefits helped employees through furloughs.
Quarantining COVID-19-exposed employees with testing results delayed as much as 14 days earlier in the pandemic forced Universal to set up contract testing with labs to cut down the wait to a day or two, Nunley said, adding that finding antigen testing supplies and processing machines for more rapid employee testing has been unsuccessful because of nationwide demand.
“When you think you see some hopeful trend lines in the data, you get disappointed,” Nunley said, although Universal officials hope for better business news in the first quarter of 2021.
Sonu Singh, president of software engineering firm 1901 Group, said the pandemic coincided with the opening of his company’s Abingdon office. With all employees forced to work from home, Singh said existing broadband infrastructure helped most of his employees make that transition. Some, however, did need help with access via wireless internet setups.
Singh said another issue — child care — has proven an issue as some employees have to balance work with children at home and home schooling because of hybrid or remote instruction from area school divisions. He credited United Way of Southwest Virginia with trying to boost child care resources in the region.
Donna Henry, chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, said technology unintentionally helped ready the college for remote instruction when it started issuing iPads to all full-time students in the fall of 2019. Broadband access in the region still poses problems for students off-campus, she said.
Enrollment at the college is slightly higher than last year, she said, although there is a decline in first-year student enrollment. Henry attributed that decrease in part to economic impacts on students facing fiscal stress on their families and choosing to delay enrollment.
While UVA Wise has implemented a strong COVID-19 testing program, Henry said a low positivity rate among the college community still faces infection rates over 10% in the region.
“It’s been a heavy lift for all educational entities,” Smyth County Schools Superintendent Dennis Carter told Northam. “We’ve become great online educators, but we all know it’s not the best method of instruction.”
Carter also pointed to food insecurity for many students’ families in the region and to a greater need for broadband access.
Ballad Health Vice President Eric Deaton said a COVID-19 positivity rate approaching 14% in the region highlights the need for the state to support local health departments’ testing and contact tracing capabilities.
State Delegate Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, and Food City’s head of strategic investment, said the pandemic has affected supply and transportation chains. Hiring specialized employees for Food City’s stores has become harder in recent months despite increased customer traffic.
“It’s been one of the toughest employment situations we’ve been in,” O’Quinn said.
LENOWISCO Planning District Executive Director Duane Miller said that state funding for broadband and internet hot spot development has already helped start improvements in Lee, Wise and Scott counties and Norton before the pandemic. As school systems found more need for broadband connection for students, Miller said United Way has helped with setting up outdoor sites where students’ families can access downtown broadband connections that LENOWISCO has developed in partnership with Scott County Telephone Cooperative.
Miller said 13 downtown free broadband access systems have become operational and two more systems are near operation. Small business help has also come from state grants for bridge loans that have helped 88 businesses, he said. A small business voucher program has also helped address food insecurity for low-income students by giving vouchers for meals at local restaurants, he added.
Pulaski County Administrator Jonathan Sweet told Northam that, while state assistance with broadband and repurposing grant funds to help cope with the pandemic, Virginia needs to look at public health issues aggravated by the pandemic such as mental health, physical health and addiction.