By BEN FINLEY and SARAH RANKIN Associated Press\r\n\r\nRICHMOND, Va. (AP) \u2014 Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that all schools in the state should make in-person instruction available at least as an option next month, noting the coronavirus pandemic's steep toll on children and families.\r\n\r\nNortham said during a news conference that all K-12 school divisions should make the option available by March 15. He also encouraged schools to offer summer classes for kids who want to take them. The governor did not say the guidance was mandatory, but his office later said Northam expects all districts in the state to be on board with the March 15 deadline.\r\n\r\n"My fellow pediatricians say they're seeing an increase in behavioral problems, mental health issues and even increases in substance abuse among their young patients," said Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist and the nation's only governor who is a doctor.\r\n\r\n"They're writing more prescriptions, such as anti-depressants and stimulants," he continued. "And that's just not a good direction for us to keep going. And we're also seeing a decline in academic performance."\r\n\r\n"These will be options we are giving to our schools to do this safely and responsibly," he said.\r\n\r\nBen Kiser, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said his organization was glad the governor did not issue a mandate. But he emphasized superintendents are generally anxious to get kids back to in-person instruction.\r\n\r\nKiser said he thinks the governor's guidance will encourage districts that may have been hesitant to move more quickly.\r\n\r\n"I think the divisions that have been 100% virtual will now need to take a look at how they can best serve the high-priority children after March 15 in a face-to-face format," he said.\r\n\r\nNortham said in-person classes have been shown to be safe when guidelines such as social distancing and mask wearing are followed. And he said that federal COVID relief money as well as state revenue can help schools extend the school year into summer.\r\n\r\nNortham wrote in a letter to superintendents that "we are now equipped as a society to safely open schools and operate them in ways that protect students, teachers, and staff members."\r\n\r\n"Nearly two-thirds of Virginia's 133 school divisions have demonstrated the ability to do this," his letter continued. "But about 40 school divisions currently offer no in-person options, preventing nearly 500,000 students from entering the classroom. This needs to change, even if the decision is difficult."\r\n\r\nThe Virginia Department of Education's website shows that 42 school divisions were still fully remote as of late January. The website said that 41 districts were offering at least some in-person learning to some students.\r\n\r\nThe Virginian-Pilot reported Thursday that most students in the state's Hampton Roads region have been learning virtually. Larger districts such as Chesapeake and Virginia Beach have brought back students except for those whose families wanted them to continue learning virtually.\r\n\r\nIn northern Virginia, the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools said students will start returning to classrooms in early March, The Washington Post reported. Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools also said that students should be back by mid-March.\r\n\r\nBut Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Dur\u00e1n said Thursday that he was not ready to set a firm date. He said the county continues to exceed the "highest risk" category for spreading the virus.