Virginia Delegate Lashrecse Aird. (Lashrecse Aird)

Delegate Lashrecse Aird on Virginia’s coronavirus response and equal rights

“This pandemic is really putting a spotlight on disparities, barriers and challenges that have long existed that we have simply failed to fully address.”

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The following is a transcript of the interview conducted by GovSight Executive Producer Josh Henry and Editor Chris Butler with Virginia Delegate Lashrecse Aird on coronavirus safety, the response in her district and her legislative push for equal rights. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

J Delegate Aird, thank you for joining Chris and I for InSight by GovSight.

L Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to the conversation today.

J As are we. Now obviously the coronavirus pandemic has consumed media coverage in the minds of many throughout both Virginia and the United States at large. I know earlier today, Governor Northam went over some of the first steps for the general reopening of Virginia. What are some of the key points that you think people should understand about this upcoming process?

L I think the most important thing that people need to remember is this is not going away. Even though we are having conversations about reopening, transitioning into phase one and then later on, hopefully, other phases, that does not mean we can get comfortable and stop taking the preventive measures that we have been advised to use up until this point. We are still trying to aggressively combat this virus all over Virginia and in our communities. And therefore, you should still do the things that you have been doing. But you just now have greater options in terms of where you are able to go if necessary and services that you can utilize if necessary and some of those more routine things that you’re missing out by, you know, sheltering in place.

J And just to refocus people one more time, I know it’s been kind of beaten into all of us at this point, but what are those specific things that people should be doing to keep safe during this pandemic?

LAbsolutely. I think the first we have to start with is although we’re transitioning to conversations around reopening, and the shelter in place in Virginia is moving to a safer-in-place, still use a measure to determine whether or not you really need to go out. While you can go out to more places now, if it’s not absolutely necessary — let’s start with that. Still limit your traveling and still limit how much your frequency in certain locations as much as you possibly can, because that will continue to combat the virus. And in addition to that, if you must go out, please continue to wear your facial mask. We’re not saying you need to have an N-95 mask, which is something to limit the spread of the mist that we each are sort of exposing when we speak to each other and when we are in close distances of each other.

And speaking of close distances, please continue to social distance. I know everyone is probably sick of hearing this word, but please continue to stay far apart from each other when you are frequenting a restaurant or grocery shopping or any of those places that you need to go out to. Wash your hands as regularly as possible. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water. These are just some of the very basics, but if we continue to do these things, we will go a long way.

J And what are some of the things people should do if they think they are feeling sick?

L You know, if you think you are feeling sick, definitely the first line of defense is to contact your primary care physician. We’ve worked really hard, and the governor shared some of this, to make sure that physicians now have access to testing. They’re going to be the first line of assessment to tell you what you are experiencing and whether or not this is a clear indicator of symptoms of the coronavirus. If you don’t have a primary care physician, obviously you can go to the emergency room, but your primary care physician: they know you a bit better. They are accustomed to your health record and the types of things you’ve experienced in the past and so they can give you that more personalized assessment, but the emergency room absolutely is an option. And depending on where you live, there are proper testing centers all across Virginia, we are working really hard to increase the presence of those. But I know that there are a number of pop-up testing locations that you can visit as well if you are feeling quite ill and you would like to just get that test taken care of.

J Let’s turn to some of the legislation that you’ve specifically been working on during this pandemic. I know in your district right now, there’s a bit of political turmoil over residents having their utilities turned off despite some of the work being done to ease the financial impact of the quarantine that we’re all going through. What are you doing to try and help those that may not have the means to help themselves during this crisis?

L Yeah, I really appreciate you mentioning that. As you can imagine. I’m in an uneasy state right now as two weekends ago, I was first notified that there were families that were possibly without water. Of course, up to today, we have now confirmed that there are 46 households that do not have water and that is quite alarming during a pandemic. While it’s been described that these accounts were disconnected prior to the COVID-19 crisis, you know, I just have to say that despite that we are still living through a pandemic at this point in time, and when one of the number one recommendations are to wash your hands, I know that there are financial circumstances, but it’s just a human right that you should have access to water, especially during a public health emergency. So I will say that while I am continuing to have conversations with the locality about the options that these families need and deserve. I’m also in regular communication with the governor’s team, who is also exploring options of how they can support the needs of these 46 households — and/or consider a broader approach to not just the address the current 46 in my locality, but also any other hardships that might be experienced as a result of COVID-19 as it pertains to your utilities throughout the state.

I can’t express how deeply time is of the essence. And sometimes bureaucracy can take a little bit of time and a few wheels turning. And so on the other end I’m working, talking with private organizations and foundations about establishing an emergency reconnection fund so that we can quickly get money. I think it’s about 90,000 that’s required to get these households connected. So while that’s not legislation, we’re specifically on pursuing both avenues to try and get that done.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Congressman McEachin, who was working at the federal level to address this issue. He released a letter just earlier this week that was sent to the leadership of the House of Representatives to ask that in the next cares package that is adopted, which that is in the works right now, any locality that is requesting reimbursement of COVID-19 expenses from the federal government that those funds be conditioned on not disconnecting utilities in the locality and also reconnecting anyone who was currently disconnected in the locality. And so all of these things are in the works. But of course, they can’t come fast enough.

J And you mentioned in there that this crisis has had an impact on human rights. I know that in your legislative career, you’ve had a large focus on women’s rights and some in civil rights as well. We’re currently doing a brief expose on GovSight regarding the impact of coronavirus legislation on human rights and civil rights across the United States. What are some of the impacts that the legislation we have passed?

L Yes, if I can speak to just one example — during the 2020 session, I was really proud to pass legislation that would give state certification to doulas. As you know, doulas are birth workers that can work alongside pregnant women or a pregnant individual to ensure that they have the care that they need. In Virginia, and in a number of states across the country, African American women are dying at an increased rate — and their children, I should say — as a result of maternal mortality. And so passing this legislation to get doulas certified, increases the access that individuals have to enhance and increase care.

And although that legislation doesn’t go into effect, as with all laws in Virginia, until July 1, one of the problems that has been shared with me is doulas not being allowed in the hospitals. Now, as you can imagine, having your birth worker that has been alongside you the entire time through your pregnancy, and to not have access to that individual as a result of COVID-19. You know, that can just have a severe impact on someone’s well-being psychologically and physically, because the doula’s role is to monitor the caregiving, ask those questions to make sure that there’s an advocate present for what they are describing as symptoms of pain and so forth. And so that was one of the first connections that was brought to my attention during this crisis just to tie it specifically to legislation.

J Why has that kind of inspired you to push to fight, especially for women’s rights? Or are there other examples in your career that you’ve seen that have just shown you that there needs to be more of a focus on women’s rights, especially during this pandemic?

L You know, women’s rights is just one of those issues. I think you’ve seen across the country that, and I can’t speak specifically to this in Virginia, but I think you’ve seen across the country all types of, I don’t know I don’t want to speak to it negatively, but dynamics that pull in the pro-choice and abortion rights arguments as a result of COVID-19 and, you know, all types of attacks on women’s rights. And I think that one of the things that has been said time and time before is that COVID-19 is really putting — or this pandemic, is really putting a spotlight on disparities, barriers and challenges that have long existed that we have simply failed to fully address. And I think women’s rights are just one of those things.

But if I’m honest, I would say that if I think about the legislation I carried also in 2020, that speaks to prisoners’ rights and those who are transitioning back into society, trying to set them up on better footing by ensuring they have the necessary documentation that is typically expected to gain housing, gain meaningful employment and just to be able to prove your identity. We have seen the conversation around the spread of the coronavirus in facilities and how those who are expected to be released within a shorter period of time up to a year that we should go ahead and let those individuals out full time. Some of that directly, back to legislation, is another challenge that we are experiencing.

I’ll [also] address education, because I did carry a large omnibus bill during this past session that would have supported increased resources for counties, especially those that are considered to be economically distressed resources for increased school counseling, all around adopting standards of equality that were recommended from the State Board of Education here over this past year. And that was part of the conversation that legislation didn’t move forward during this session. But look at where we are now, even in a worst scenario, just because we have had to close our schools as a result of the pandemic ambles achievement gaps that long existed, they are only growing now because the way we are educating children virtually as a result of the virus is not uniform, I can tell you that in my community just alone and across the states. And so there are a number of things that I have fought for even just in this past session that the pandemic has only complicated as I look forward to what 2021 is going to hold, and just thinking about the needs that the community is going to have as we come out of this. So I know that was a lot but just some of the things that are top of mind for me.

J You specifically mentioned education in there. I know that you have served on several committees with regards to assisting the educational impact in Virginia. What do you think students are going to go through following this pandemic? I mean, high school seniors are not able to graduate or kind of finish out their last years. College seniors have had to take classes online for the most part and then graduate that way. Do you think that this pandemic will kind of usher in changes to how we educate students? Or will it be back to business as usual? And should it be back to business as usual?

L You know, I just have to say, Josh, that I never want to see things go back to business as usual. I think back to business as usual is part of why we have some of these challenges and these barriers that we are experiencing right now. I probably could go on for days about your question because it is such a critical one. But I’m just going to touch on a few things.

And so in addition to the committee’s that I have served on — the Appropriations Committee, namely and the elementary and secondary subcommittee of that committee. I am also a mom of an eight- and 12-year-old boy, so I have school-aged children. And then I also have worked for over six or seven years now at Richard Bland College of William and Mary, which is a two-year institution that is an associate-granting college. And so I’m seeing the impacts of this pandemic on multiple fronts, with my own children being students and then the students that I’m engaging with that are college students. And so the first thing I will say is, I just have to add in the mental health aspects of this pandemic on young people. I don’t think that we are taking enough time to really be deliberate about checking in with students who have had their routine disrupted, have had to adopt various virtual learning expectations in a short amount of time, are limited in their social engagement and how that is impacting them. Because like within any crisis, there is an expectation that we are quickly able to adapt and then keep pushing forward. At some juncture, we are going to have to be deliberate about that check in and make sure that there is a mental and psychological stability, because without that, no matter what mode of learning you have adopted, there will be some impact there.

I’ll go on to talk about seniors. I want to really commend administrators and educators that have been very thoughtful and deliberate about what this means to them. Yes, they’re being robbed of some of their experiences, but I will say from a transitioning period from being a senior perhaps into college, I know that high school guidance counselors are doing everything they can to ensure that the seniors have the support that they need to finish out strong. I know that colleges and universities are trying to be as flexible as possible in documentation that’s required to apply, G.P.A.s and how that’s being weighed, pass/fail grades that are now being applied as a result of no longer using your traditional G.P.A. scale, our grading model, the fees that are typically associated with college applications — that list is can go on. So I’m just going to say that there are a number of efforts being made to try and accommodate these changes that are required.

I will then end with saying that mostly the institutions, the colleges and universities, have moved to virtual curriculums or delivering their curriculums virtually — and I don’t see that changing. I think that there has been a disruption that was occurring in higher-ed for quite some time now. There has been push and pull and debate around the ability to deliver online classes effectively — and actually what constitutes effective online delivery, it’s more than just jumping on a Zoom call, right? But I think that to prepare for not just resurgence in the fall, but long-term incidents, even a hurricane or tornado that might occur. I think colleges and universities and perhaps even K-12 are going to start thinking about having that virtual option ready to go. And even some schools might permanently say, you know what, this is a better model for us to deliver our courses online, and how do we move to that place

The one caveat is, as we know, in rural communities, there is a significant deficit in access to broadband. And actually, I would say, admittedly, I really didn’t realize until this virus that in even urban, economically distressed communities, while the issue is not access to broadband, the issue is being able to afford: Do I have that laptop? Do I have internet service that my family can afford to pay for? And so there’s a disparity and just how much connectivity access our students actually have. And so that will have to be taken into deep consideration, which I think will be part of the core thinking moving forward.

C I’d like to take it back a little bit to the point you made about the mental health impacts on students. What is kind of being done to take into account these mental health impacts that the virus kind of brings on?

LThank you, Chris. I think that’s a really great point. I know that we have been pushing out information regarding hotlines that can be called if you are experiencing a mental health crisis or any unusual set of circumstances that don’t speak to the normal character of who you are. At the college and university level, I know our counselors are reaching out via email if they have noticed a change in academic behavior for a student to make sure that there isn’t something going on, that they might be able to adjust.

But also my greatest fear, you know, is those who are silent, those who are not reaching out. I’ve heard a number of statistics that I can’t really speak to because I haven’t done the research myself, around reporting for child abuse, reporting for domestic violence — just a number of different types of social ills. And most of the time, the people we’re not hearing from are the ones who are being impacted. And so how will we increase that outreach to make sure there is not someone in a mentally unstable position? I think there’s a lot of work to do to still figure that out and get it right. But in terms of what is being done, that’s at least what I’m familiar with.

J Are there any specific things that you’d like to see done? Any specific pieces of legislation that you plan on trying to push through if you can?

L You know, that is a loaded question. I am spinning my wheels, trying to put out fires left and right. But the truth of the matter is, in Virginia, at least, July will open up that period of time where we can begin having those conversations about filing legislation. So I have to say that specifically on the utility front, there are a number of ideas that are top of mind, including the establishment of — and I will, I have to admit that the details aren’t fully fleshed out. I will be getting guidance from the experts on that — but there are ideas around how we can set up perhaps a fund that will get folks’ waters reconnected, but they would have to at some point pay towards paying down their past bill or future bill, what have you.

There’s another question around the process: How did we get here? If I can just speak to this current situation regarding utilities: I was under the impression that a building code requirement is that there’s a certain level of notification that should be received by both owners of properties and/or tenants should utilities be disconnected after a certain period of time and homes being inhabitable should the water remain, or whatever the utility is, if it remains this connected — and it seems to me that some of that isn’t happening. And so I’m in an investigative phase to figure out what’s the right fit to address the need, because there’s absolutely a need, to make sure we never end up in this place again.

But on the education front, I would say that I am actively still trying to figure out what those needs are specifically because we are still early on in combating this virus, even in thinking about heading towards reopening. But I will say though, legislature is expected to have a special session, when we will go back. It may be perhaps late June or it may be perhaps early August. And we’re still waiting on those details. But some of the discussion has been around nursing homes. Do we need to change the reporting standards for nursing homes and reporting standards in general? I will tell you right here in my district, where you have a multi-jurisdictional health district, they are not reporting the deaths specifically, they were not reporting the deaths by locality. And there was a fear that with typical practice, if you have any type of pandemic or epidemic, whatever the situation is, you can target and/or easily identify people in small communities if you release that type of information. Where there was a bit of back and forth before that information became available — and it was solely at the discretion of one individual. So is that something we need to address in the law? Is that a regulatory change that needs to occur? These are some of the conversations that are going on.

And I think the biggest component of when we return for a special session is the budget. In Virginia, the governor has allotted at least $2 billion in priorities that were passed in the 2020 legislative session and we are waiting on a re-forecast to determine just how much of an impact the Commonwealth has experienced as a result of COVID-19 coupled with the federal dollars that are being provided to the state to fill some of those expenses that were used. And so once we have a clear indicator, we will know can we move forward with things like teacher salaries, state employee salaries. Can we continue to fund the increase in the number of counselors that we have allocated for schools? That’s a short lens. There’s a very long list and so those are some of the decisions we will have to make. And I think coming out of that session, we will be further along in determining just how much of an impact we are still seeing in Virginia as it pertains to contracting the virus among citizens. And I think that will weigh heavily on exactly what legislation needs to be put forward. So I know that’s not a direct answer. But that’s a long way of saying I’m actively assessing what that needs to look like. But there is some thought being put into that already at this time.

J Delegate, one of our goals at GovSight is to make citizenship simplified — to give people an idea of what these processes that go on that determine the legislation or the acts that kind of revolve around their lives. What is it like in the Virginia General Assembly? What is it like passing a bill through? How do you work with other delegates or other senators, state senators, to pass legislation, to discuss the changes that you think we need in our society?

L You know, Josh, we could have an entire podcast on this alone. So I am going to do my very best to answer this as clearly as possible. And so I think this process is twofold. And I think I can’t talk about the sausage-making of the legislature until I talk about the citizen component. And so I will just be honest and say, and I don’t think I’m any different than a number of representatives, which I hope that I’m not, and that I often solicited my legislative ideas for each General Assembly session directly from citizens.

Half the time, I discover changes that need to occur based on the challenges and the barriers that my constituents are experiencing. Some of these laws have been on the books since the beginning of time and with every bill that we’re introducing, most of the time, it’s not brand new concepts or brand new ideas, it’s changing something to existing law. And so citizens really need to know that when they are experiencing these challenges with their state governments, their first line of defense is their representative because something could be having an unintended consequence and until you bring it to the attention of your representative, there needs to be — they don’t know necessarily that something needs to be changed with the way that law is written.

I think the second layer to that is advocacy organizations and just social problems that have long existed. I have a very unique district where I have the largest part of my district is very urban, very economically distressed. And when you look at the measures of the health of the locality, from a financial, from a social, from just all of those metrics: It’s in a pretty bad position. The second largest portion of my district is completely rural. And so their needs vary greatly from that in my urban locality. And then the smallest portion, but still significant, is a suburban community that’s very affluent, stronger school systems, different types of health dynamics. And so what I’m soliciting in terms of issues to address my district, it’s entirely different based on those needs. So advocacy organizations that focus on criminal justice, that focus on perhaps gun rights or public safety rights, women’s rights, just who I am as an individual and my life’s experiences: I use that as well as a gauge to determine what other types of societal ills am I witnessing in my district that needs to be addressed. And so that’s like the back end of how we get to some of these bills.

I will go forward now and say when we have the bill, and we’re going through the legislative process, I think the first step that you have to take is assessing where that bill is going. What journey is that bill going to have to take. Prior to introducing the bill, oftentimes I figure out who’s going to be impacted by this legislation, who can actually speak to this from a personal experience, a personal testimony and to show I’m not just pulling these bills out of a hat, but it has real life implications on the citizens of the Commonwealth.

The next step is what committee is this bill going to have to go through — and to be clear, all bills will be sent to a subcommittee and then, if it moves forward, then the full committee and then to the full floor, who doesn’t have to go through to get that bill to continue to move forward. That requires deliberate strategy. Think about the legislators on those committees and what their issues of importance are, what lenses are they going to view this legislation through? I do personal lobbying, if you will, talking to those legislators directly, sending the individuals who will be impacted by this legislation to engage with those members. And then sometimes there are advocacy groups that will support bills and they can get in that lobbying as well. And then once it gets through the respective body and it’s on their respective bodies committees and it’s on the floor, I then think you should probably know where that bill is standing prior to it’s getting to the floor. I use my voice by giving speeches to try and give that bill one final push to make sure I get over the finish line.

And to be honest, I will say that even with all of that. it can get to the other body and where it has to restart that process. It can still meet its fate there despite having passed, in my case, the House. And so I’ve had bills, particularly one this past session that dealt with higher-ed that made it out of the house and got to the Senate and died. We have 100 members in the House here in Virginia and in 40 in the Senate — and the composure in terms of philosophical thinking, just fundamental approaches, is very different in the Senate than it is in the House. And so you can’t let up on your advocacy. You can’t let up on your personal testimony of giving a face to that issue. And you have to continue to be willing to try and get people to a place of understanding so that it can make it all the way to the governor’s desk.

C One last question before we wrap up: What first got you interested in politics and government?

L Thank you so much. I would say I was one of those individuals that grew up in very adverse circumstances. My mother had me when she was 16 and she faced a number of challenges on her own. Even with my father who was in the Navy and then retired from his service in the Navy honorably, we still struggled. I always said that whatever line of work that I would engage in, it would be to better the circumstances of someone else. And my journey just happened to make it so that it’s through government.

I will give you a perfect example of why I’m doing this work. This isn’t about me, it is about self promotion. I was an individual who lived in a hotel; I was an individual that has gone without water. I was an individual who observed my parents working multiple jobs and still fell on hard times. And so I feel an obligation and a responsibility to give voice to those needs, to those issues, to those experiences for the people who don’t know how to use their voice to advocate for themselves in that way. And I will tell you in just being in the legislature for four years, I know that there is a deep absence of being able to see legislation and see policy through those lenses. And without that type of voice at the table, it is very possible that policies that we adopt can have unintended consequences. I believe that my life’s experiences are what prepared me for this type of work. But the opportunity and deep desire to just want to help the circumstances of others is what got me here.

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