Hunter Britt

After ‘overwhelming’ year of remote learning, students welcome return to campus

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Devastated. Drained. Depressed. Those are just a few words college students used to describe the past 15 months since the pandemic hit. 

This past year has been a mixed bag of hybrid and online learning, but many college campuses in Virginia are completely reopening in the fall. Students had different reactions to online learning, but many are excited to transition back to in-person instruction.

Students said their mental health suffered during the two and a half semesters of online learning. Many said it was worse during the first semester when the pandemic hit. Jamareya Thomas, a fashion merchandising and marketing major at Virginia State University in Petersburg, said that her mental health declined as her coursework grew more difficult.

“It definitely went down some, especially when I started taking harder classes,” she said. “This semester has actually been pretty good on my mental health. Last semester it was terrible, but this semester I was a lot more calm and collected.” 

A survey of over 1,000 Virginia college students by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 76% reported challenges to their mental health during the first months of the pandemic. Another survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M University showed that 71% reported increased stress and anxiety levels. Only 43% said they were able to cope with this stress.

Amiya Brady, a nursing major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, said she endured a lot more stress from virtual learning as opposed to in person.

“I was drained and tired because of the excessive workload,” she said. “We didn’t have as much work in person as we did online, so it was kind of overwhelming at times.”

Nyasia Dozier, a criminal justice major at VSU, said there are merits to both in-person and virtual learning, but she “had a hard time adjusting” to virtual learning. She said she was devastated when classes moved online last spring.

“I'm more of a hands-on learner, so I need to be in class learning versus at home,” Dozier said. “When I’m at home, I'll be lazy and I forget about my work. I’m not nearly as focused now as I was on campus.”

Julie Bernardez, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said virtual learning made the transition between high school and college more difficult.

“The hardest part is trying to figure out what’s OK and what’s not OK,” she said. “When classes are in person, you can raise your hand and go to the bathroom whenever you want, but people aren’t really taught online etiquette.”

Bernardez said tasks that were simple with in-person learning, such as contacting teachers or hearing the lecture, are now much harder.

“There’s a lot of issues that happen with online stuff that throws me off,” she said, “whether it’s trying to get a hold of teachers or Zoom technology, the video or the sound, isn’t working.”

Grana Ali, a biology major at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, stated in an email that while her mental health wasn’t affected too negatively, it was still difficult to adjust to a COVID-19 world.

“I was a bit unmotivated to do things and felt isolated,” she said. “It’s depressing seeing all the horrible things happening in the world around you, and it definitely takes a toll on a person mentally, but I feel like I’m doing pretty OK so far.”

Clinical depression increased 90% among college-aged young adults in the first few months of the pandemic, according to a recently published study. The students’ screen time more than doubled, socialization decreased by over half, and average steps taken declined from 10,000 to 4,600 per day.

Despite the struggles that virtual learning brings, students said that they have ways of boosting their mental health and motivation.

“Sitting in Monroe Park has helped a lot, just relaxing and breathing the fresh air,” Bernardez said. “I'll go grab a smoothie and just sit on the bench with my phone put away.”

Other students take a break from school, but not from computer screens.

“I watch a quick 30 minute show, get a little TV time in, or even just play on my phone for a while to get a break from school,” Brady said.

Ali said Netflix is her go-to for entertainment, but she has also taken up reading more.

“I’ve really enjoyed it and used it as a way to escape from the realities of the world,” she said.

The isolation and struggles are why so many students anticipate returning to campus.

Many colleges and universities are still finalizing plans for the fall semester but have announced plans to be on campus with safety policies in place. A growing list of higher education institutions around the U.S. have announced a COVID-19 vaccine policy for students and employees, including some colleges in Virginia—though many of the state’s major colleges have not made a final determination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear masks or social distance unless a law or regulation requires it.

Many college students are excited to return to campus in the fall, while others aren’t sure it’s the best course of action. Ali will likely return to campus.

“A lot of people have been getting vaccinated and abiding by the COVID safety rules,” Ali said. “I’ll most likely be returning to campus and as long as people are aware that COVID is still a risk and continue to do their part in stopping it from spreading.” 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia 10th State to Pass Domestic Worker Protections

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills providing protections and benefits for the state’s domestic workers.

 House Bill 2032, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, extends employee protection laws to domestic service workers that allows them to file complaints regarding workplace safety. The Commission of Labor and Industry would investigate such claims.

Domestic worker is defined as an individual paid either directly or indirectly for services of a household nature performed in or about a private home. This includes jobs such as “companions, cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs.” The bill states that domestic work does not include jobs that are irregular or uncertain. 

This bill will affect around 60,000 workers in Virginia, according to Erica Sklar, a national organizer for Hand In Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers pushing for better working conditions. Lawmakers said 90% of the workers are women and half are women of color.

“Virginia is the 10th state to pass legislation like this,” Sklar said. “There's also two cities that have passed this legislation, Seattle and Philadelphia.”

Domestic workers were exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlined protections such as a 40-hour maximum workweek and minimum wage requirements. Political scholars say that Southern Democrats joined with Republicans in opposition to the FLSA. A Congressional bill introduced in 2019 sought to repeal the exemption and also expand coverage to domestic workers under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against discrimination in employment.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director of the advocacy group Care in Action, said she wants people to understand the challenges of being a domestic worker. Care in Action is a nonprofit that advocates for millions of domestic workers in the nation. Domestic workers are excluded from workplace protection policies, which many lawmakers had not previously considered, Rodgers said.

“Sometimes it’s having a new idea or concept introduced and taking a little more time to educate lawmakers,” Rodgers said. “We’ve certainly seen progress along the way.”

The original bill would have covered domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, but that portion of the bill was removed, Rodgers said. She hopes the act will eventually include domestic workers.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also introduced a bill this session advocating for domestic workers’ rights. The General Assembly passed HB 1864, which expands the definition of employer in the Virginia Human Rights Act to protect domestic workers from workplace discrimination. The act prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other factors. 

 Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, carried Senate Bill 1310, which includes domestic workers in employee protection laws, including laws regarding the payment of wages. The bill also extends protection to domestic workers from workplace discrimination.

"These were jobs that were originally done for free under slavery and then were limited jobs available to African American women,” McClellan said when introducing her bill. “As part of Jim Crow they were excluded from minimum wage, workers’ comp, the Human Rights Act, our OSHA laws, our unemployment comp laws—not just here in Virginia, but throughout the South and at the federal level." 

McClellan said she is passionate about fighting for domestic workers’ rights.

“I understand from my own family experience how important domestic work is,” McClellan said. “We trust domestic workers to care for our loved ones in our homes, and their work allows other people to work.”

Opponents of Gooditis’ measure worried over the protocol that allows for a residence to be inspected when a domestic worker files a complaint. Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said before the bill’s passage that he worried “the government will now be able to enter an employer's house without a search warrant if this conference report is agreed to.”

“My concern about this is that now we’re setting up a system where if you have someone who performs childcare in your home or cleans at your home, now the government is going to be able to come in to inspect that residence,” McDougle said.

McClellan said that in order to conduct an inspection officials will need permission from the owners of the residence or workplace. 

“No one would be able to come in without a warrant in the scenario that the senator from Hanover just described,” she said. “Again, there will be no inspections without the consent of the owner, operator of the workplace.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virtual learning a mixed bag for special education students, teachers

Marjorie Loya and a Softball team with Special Olympics. Photo Credit: Marjorie Loya

By Hunter Britt and India Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Sebastian and Gabriel Saxon wake up at the same time every day and log into online classes. Sebastian has Cerebral palsy and is diagnosed with autism. Gabriel has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. 

The twins’ mother, Judi Saxon, said that Google Meet, the platform used to conduct online classes, has worked well for her sons, who are freshmen in high school this year. 

“They're both rule followers,” Saxon said. “They like a routine.” 

Saxon said she is involved in her sons’ education and the special needs community. Her husband, Michael Saxon, sits on the Board of Directors of Special Olympics Virginia. She said that switching to all virtual learning was an adjustment, but it had a positive effect on her teenage sons.

“Our family is pretty low key, and our boys are not super sports fans, and they don’t have a lot of extra curricular activities,” she said. “So they weren't really missing out on that. And they are homebodies, so they really enjoyed it.” 

The COVID-19 era has restructured education for everyone, especially students with disabilities. The lack of peer interaction has negatively impacted some students with disabilities, while allowing others to thrive in the digital classroom, according to parents and educators.

The Virginia Department of Education reported a decrease in fall term enrollment for all students, including students with disabilities. Enrollment for students without and with disabilities declined by 3% and 4% respectively from the 2019 to 2020 academic years, according to VDOE.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced guidelines in June for phased reopening of pre-K through 12th grade schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. The announcement prioritised special education students to return to in-person education before other groups. 

But many school districts, including Richmond, opted to remain remote since the beginning of the school year. Some districts are allowing only students with disabilities to return to in-person learning. VDOE Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Samantha Hollins said that for students with disabilities, the virtual learning environment may be more of a challenge.

State and public agencies are required to provide early intervention, special education and related services nationally to more than 6.5 million people with disabilities, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The VDOE oversees special education for children and youth with disabilities between ages 3 to 21. 

“It has become more challenging of course, but the students’ rights remain,” said VDOE spokesman Charles B. Pyle. “The services that are required to be provided to those students do not go on holiday because of the pandemic.”

Local school divisions offer special programs and resources for students with disabilities, but remote education may be inaccessible during the pandemic for such students who rely on hands-on education, according to Hollins. There are almost 168,000 students with disabilities in Virginia public schools, according to VDOE’s latest enrollment numbers. Disabilities range from intellectual and emotional to hearing and visual impairments, including the deaf and blind, Hollins said. 

“Certain populations of students are more at-risk and not able to access virtual learning or remote education as easily as other students, for example, students with disabilities,” Hollins said. “When you talk about students with disabilities, there is a pretty wide group of those students.” 

Students are often required to attend multiple courses per day via Zoom or Google Meet, including out-of-class assignments. Hollins said her department has provided a lot of information on assistive technology. For example, virtual education may be accessible to a hearing impaired student with screen reader software. 

“Students who have a visual disability, or blind, or a hearing impairment, or deaf, will require special tools to be loaded onto their Chromebook,” Hollins said.

The VDOE sponsors training and technical assistance centers across the state to provide support to teachers test-driving new technology, Hollins said. Public and private special education schools have a collaborative approach to improve educational services for students during COVID-19. According to VDOE, technology provided to public schools is accessible to private educational facilities. 

“We’ve had countless meetings with public schools during these difficult times,” said Sarah Ulmer, principal of Grafton School in Midlothian.

Grafton Integrated Health Network is a nonprofit with group homes and schools serving students with autism, intellectual disabilities and mental health challenges, according to its website. Seventy-four students are enrolled on the Midlothian campus, Ulmer said. During the COVID-19 mandated closure, students with disabilities received in-person instruction from their residential group homes, while teachers provided virtual instruction to students who do not live on-campus.

Although Grafton School reopened its community day school to in-person instruction five days a week, many parents have not sent their children to school, Ulmer said. 

“Our students benefit from learning with hands-on activities,” Ulmer said. “The teachers and clinicians have worked hard to create work activities that are sent home to our students to complete with their families.”

Distance learning plans at the school include individualized sessions throughout the week with the student’s teacher and assigned therapists.

Many educators as well as parents have differing views on online platforms being used for virtual education. Some also question how effective online education is as a whole and said it is a struggle for teachers and students. 

Donna Marshall, a special education teacher at Lakeside Elementary in Henrico County, said that both she and many of her students have had issues with the online format.

“It was very difficult for them at first,” Marshall said. “This is such a change for them. Many of them need different things like the sensory breaks, and it's really hard for them to just sit in front of a computer.”

The primary platform Marshall and her students use is Microsoft Teams. She said that while it works well in business settings, she believes that it is less effective in a classroom setting due to audio issues.

Marshall said that some of her students have done well with virtual education, but the format has had a negative impact on other students.

“I have seen several kids majorly regress because they don't have the in-person connection,” she said. 

Marjorie Loya, a Special Olympics coach and a retired special education teacher from Chesterfield County who is now a substitute teacher, said the biggest concern she has for the children learning virtually is the lack of interaction with peers.

“They just don't see the other kids, which is the shame,” she said. “That's the big piece that I see that they're missing. They're interacting with adults, but they're not interacting with their peers.”

Loya said she believes that online education in the special needs community is ineffective, especially in the long run.

“I don't think it's very good at all, because there's so many things, so many aspects that you can’t deliver services for,” she said. “Virtually, you just can't do it. One of the biggest issues that people with autism have is interacting with other people, and now we're taking almost all of that away and putting a computer between them.”

Anteal Gargiulo, a special education teacher at Goochland High School in Goochland, said that while some students she teaches have adapted well, others are struggling with the lack of structure and in-person interaction.

“My autistic kids that I thought were going to have the biggest issues actually have been more outgoing and verbal because they are on the computer, by themselves, and in their own space,” she said. “For other kids, the lack of structure has really thrown them.”

As a whole, virtual learning “has not been the best thing” for the special needs community because many students are used to teachers being physically present to help them, Gargiulo said.

“On a case-by-case basis, it’s been good for a couple of our autistic kids. As far as the rest of the kids, it has been a struggle because they don’t have the teachers right there with them.”

Halloween’s blue moon is rare and perfect for the moment

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- This year has brought a pandemic, major election and now a rare, blue moon on Halloween.

A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month and appears every 2.5 years, according to NASA. A full moon occurs on Halloween every 19 years. A Halloween full moon hasn’t appeared in all time zones since 1944, states the Farmer’s Almanac. 

The blue moon isn’t blue; the term refers to the moon’s timing, not color, NASA said. The blue moon is also known as the hunter’s moon because it provided enough light for hunters to gather food. 

Kali Fillhart, a tarot reader and astrologist, said in a Facebook message that the astrology of 2020 is more “wonky” than just a blue moon on Halloween. There is also a Mercury retrograde that ends on Election Day and a Mars retrograde that ends on Nov. 13. A retrograde describes how a planet can sometimes appear to be traveling backward through the sky, states the Farmer’s Almanac. A Mercury retrograde has a common cultural association with anxiety around miscommunication and blunders. 

“All that to say, astrologers have been talking about the astrology of 2020 for years,” Fillhart said. “We knew it was going to be intense.”

She also said this full blue moon could bring “unwanted reactions” for people, especially since Halloween is a time when “spiritual veils fall.” 

Halloween traces back to the Celtric tradition of Samhain, a festival to celebrate harvest and usher in the coming darker months. The Celts believed the “veil” between the living and the dead was at its thinnest around this time, and they celebrated their deceased ancestors, a tradition also seen in Dia de los Muertos.

Adding to the alignment of a blue moon, Halloween and astrological events, will be Daylight Saving Time on Sunday, when many Americans set their clocks back an hour and it’s darker out earlier. 

While October may have started and ended with a bright, full moon, many Americans have anxiety around the upcoming election and facing winter in a pandemic. The share of voters who expect it will be difficult to vote has more than tripled since 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Eighty-three percent of voters said this election matters. Fifty percent of voters shared that sentiment in 2000. One in three Americans reported psychological distress during extended periods of social distancing, Pew reported in May. 

Kashaf Ali, a marketing communications and analytics major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said in an email that Halloween won’t be any different for her this year, but she acknowledged that the blue moon feels ominous.

“I’ve been social distancing since March and I doubt it’ll be any different this weekend for me,”Ali said. “It’s definitely something to think about how everything’s happening so close together.”

Deneen Tyler, a spiritual wellness practitioner in Richmond, said that the people will be dealing with the energy the blue moon brings this Halloween.

“Full moons are a time of completion,” Tyler said. “It’s a time of releasing, letting go, making peace, honoring what we’ve been through, and saying goodbye in order to close that chapter and let in something new.”

Tyler said that this full blue moon will be in the astrological sign of Taurus on Halloween, and that many people might be wrestling with saying goodbye to different habits and routines, and that could apply to Election Day.

“We’re all collectively dealing with the change, hence the election, the change in the authority of our society,” Tyler said. “We’re resisting change and these alignments are really showing us where we need to release the resistance.”

Fillhart also believes that this Halloween is a time of change and personal reflection.

What does our dark side look like?” she said. “Halloween is all about confronting monsters. What monsters are we constantly fighting everyday?”

While the moon will be in Taurus on Halloween, it will be in Gemini on the night of the election, opening up new possibilities. Tyler said that, depending on the choices individuals make in dealing with the outcome of the election, people could feel “very confused” or “very inspired.” Ultimately she said people will have to choose how to direct that emotion.

“It is our choice which way we fuel,” Tyler said. “You can fuel the confusion and create more of it, or you can fuel the inspiration.”

The last blue moon on Halloween in all time zones ushered in the victory of a blue candidate. Incumbent Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican Thomas E. Dewey, going on to win a historic fourth term in the 1944 election.

Tyler said that unlike astronomy that people can witness, astrology occurs within. Different factors pertaining to celestial bodies can influence people in different ways, but individuals have to choose how they react and “the seeds they plant” on their own.

“This moon this weekend and all of these high energy, highly spiritual days, all they’re doing is opening the road for us to make a choice of which way to go,” she said. “It doesn’t dictate to us what will happen; it doesn’t dictate to us what we need to do.”

The issues guiding first-time Gen Z presidential voters

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Election Day draws near, people are on the edge of their seats, especially those voting in the presidential election for the first time. 

Generation Z makes up 10% of eligible voters in the 2020 election, according to the Pew Research Center. This percentage is expected to continue to rise at the same rate as more Gen Zers become eligible to vote. Some of the oldest members of this generation became eligible to vote in the 2016 election. Anyone born between 1997 and 2012 is considered a member of Gen Z, according to Pew

In addition to COVID-19, there are many issues motivating young voters to the polls. Gen Z voters say they’re concerned with police violence, prison reform, mental health issues, immigration and reproductive rights. 

Millennials and members of Gen Z tend to be more liberal, even those who identify as or lean Republican, according to a 2018 Pew survey. This survey also says that 43% of Gen Z Republicans are “more likely than older generations of Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the U.S. today.”

“Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations,” the survey found. 

Below are key concerns for Gen Z voters. 

THE ISSUES

Kendal Ferguson, a 20-year-old student studying criminology, law and society at George Mason University in Fairfax, cares about prison reform and combating police brutality. She wants all prisons to be government funded and said “private prisons are morally wrong” because they profit off people who break laws. 

“As for police brutality, there definitely needs to be more training for officers,” Ferguson said.

Selena Johnson, a 20-year-old student studying computer science at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is concerned with police violence, reproductive rights and climate change.

“I want to see some sort of regulation on the big companies that are contributing to like 70% of the world’s pollution,” she said. She believes that these companies should be “in the front of our minds” when combating climate change.

The recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barret as a Supreme Court justice has drawn concern from pro-choice advocates due to her past comments on abortion. Johnson said that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned and police officers “need to face consequences for their actions.”

Jessica Callahan, a 21-year-old Republican voter from Dinwiddie, said that Barrett is a “great fit” for her position on the Supreme Court due to her educational background at Notre Dame Law School. She also believes that more racial tension will inevitably come out of this election.

“It’s going to be a bunch of name-calling and finger pointing until some sort of civil unrest occurs,” Callahan said. 

Callahan is also worried about the future of healthcare in the U.S. if Democrats win the election, as well as Second Amendment rights. She thinks health care would “go down considerably” and that “they would push even harder for restrictions” on firearms. 

Ada Ezeaputa, a 20-year-old student majoring in business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is passionate about ensuring abortion access and ending police brutality.

“I don’t think the police need to be abolished, but I do think the whole system needs to be reformed,” she says. “When you look at countries like the U.K., their police officers don’t even carry weapons, so that already decreases the amount of incidents that happen all over the world.”

In addition to police reform, she is pro-choice and believes that women should have full autonomy over their bodies.

Alyssa Tyson, a 20-year-old recent graduate of Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, wants to protect personal freedoms and mental health care.

“Mental health care is something that doesn’t get addressed a lot,” she said. “I think a lot of the problems we’re trying to address as a nation start with dealing with mental health issues and providing affordable or even free mental health care to people who need it.” 

Tyson also said she is passionate about social justice issues, and that the government should not regulate reproductive rights or make laws that hinder LGBTQ rights.

Emily Wrenn, a 20-year-old student majoring in psychology at Sweet Briar College in Amherst County, considers her political views to be liberal. Wrenn describes herself as pro-choice, and said the main issues she cares about are women’s rights and dismantling racism.

“One of the biggest reasons why I am swaying more to the Democratic side is that I am very much in favor of women’s rights,” she said. “We need to make sure we are on the right track in seeing that women and men receive equal pay.”

Wrenn also said that this is “the most debate on the quality of our president that I’ve ever seen,” and that “this is one of the most significant elections we’ve had in a long time.”

THE IMPACT

Despite the encouragement to vote, first-time, Gen Z voters are divided on whether they can sway the election.

Johnson said she knows many people her age will vote third party or not at all because they are disinterested in either major presidential candidate, but she thinks the youngest generation of voters has a lot of power in this election.

“I believe that we have the most diverse population of eligible voters in America’s history,” she said. “I’m voting for who I view as ‘the lesser of two evils,’ but many people my age don’t want to vote at all because the lesser of two evils is still an evil.”

In 2016, young voters ages 18 to 29 were the only age group to report increased turnout compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1%, according to the U.S. Census. 

Ferguson, however, doesn’t believe that Gen Z has the power to sway this election.

“Our generation is still very apathetic about voting despite how vocal we are on social media and through other means,” Ferguson said. “I honestly think not a lot of people our age will bother to vote.”

Wrenn, however, believes that Gen Z could help secure a Democratic win.

“I think because we are so seemingly liberal that that will make a huge difference,” Wrenn said.

Students Say Protests Motivating Them to the Polls

 

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Voters are more divided now than they were in the 2016 election, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Many young Virginians believe the passion could translate to the polls on Election Day.

Rickia Sykes, a senior at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, said that her political views have grown stronger since protests erupted globally in late May. The death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis Police Department officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes, inspired months of protests.

Sykes said that her political views line up with her faith. She considers herself pro-life, believes in advocating for the working class, and supports law-enforcement.

“The protests have shown me we need to keep God first, but it has also shown me that good cops are important to help keep law and order,” Sykes said in a text message. “I do realize that there are bad cops, but in order to make a change, I believe we need to work together with the good cops.”

Sykes said that now she researches politicians more thoroughly before deciding which candidate gets her vote. She looks at voting records to see if they vote in a way that “will help us middle and lower-class families.”

Erik Haugen, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who considers himself a Libertarian, said his political views haven’t changed much since the protests started.

“I just see the stronger push for equality, and I think it’s a good step in our nation so long as it proceeds peacefully,” Haugen said.

Equality is at the center of issues that student voters are concerned about this election. From racial injustice to prison reform to healthcare concerns, many students say they want to enact positive change.

Students have varying opinions on whether or not the importance of voting has become more significant in recent years. Sykes said that she has always found voting significant, but she believes the importance of it has grown for others. Haugen said that while his political views haven’t changed, he believes voting has become more important in general and especially for the younger generations as tension in the U.S. grows and protests become more prominent.

Sarah Dowless, a junior at William & Mary in Williamsburg, said that voting has always been important, but the protests have made voting more prominent, “like people encouraging folks to vote and making information about voting accessible, especially among young people." Dowless said the recent protests have reinforced her progressive beliefs. 

“If anything, the protests have only amplified my concern for racial injustice in America and my concern about police brutality,” she said. “It’s a fundamental issue about freedom and it calls into question the very principles on which this country was founded and continues to claim.”

The protests also influenced a host of legislation in the recent special legislative session of the General Assembly that ended last week. Virginia legislators passed numerous bills focused on police and criminal justice reform.

According to the United States Census Bureau, voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds jumped 15.7% between 2014 and 2018. This was the largest percentage point increase for any age group. Turnout is expected to be high this year as well, but there are no final numbers for age groups. Voter registration in Virginia set a record this year with almost 5.9 million voters  registering. During the last presidential election a little more than 5.5 million people registered to vote.

Sykes is also concerned about the economy and health care.  She wants a political leader who will increase the odds that people have a stable source of income to afford medical treatment. 

“As a graduating senior, I want and need a good paying/stable job for when I graduate,” she said. “I need someone who will make sure we have a strong and reliable economy.”

Dowless wants U.S. prisons, which she describes as currently being “more punitive than rehabilitative,” to undergo major reform. Haugen would like police academy programs to be longer and implement de-escalation training. 

“I first and foremost care about the safety of the American people,” Haugen said. 

Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting are currently underway throughout the state. The deadline to request to vote absentee by mail is Oct. 23. Early voting ends the Saturday before Election Day, or Oct. 31.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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