PARIS — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit to Paris for talks Sunday night with French President Emmanuel Macron, extending a multi-stop European tour that has elicited fresh pledges of military support as his country gears up for a counteroffensive against Russian occupation forces.
In a tweet on his arrival, Zelenskyy said: “With each visit, Ukraine’s defense and offensive capabilities are expanding. The ties with Europe are getting stronger, and the pressure on Russia is growing.”
He said he and Macron “will talk through the most important points of bilateral relations.” The French leader’s office said they’ll discuss Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs and “the more long-term perspectives for a return to peace in Europe,” and that Macron will “reaffirm France and Europe’s unwavering support” for Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion.
France has supplied Ukraine with an array of weaponry, include air-defense systems, light tanks, howitzers and other arms and equipment and fuel. Macron and Zelenskyy didn’t speak to waiting reporters as they greeted each other at the French presidential palace.
France dispatched a plane to pick up Zelenskyy in Germany, where he met Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier Sunday and discussed his country’s planned counteroffensive. Zelenskyy said it will aim to liberate Russian-occupied areas within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, and not attack Russian territory.
The Washington Post cited previously undisclosed documents from a trove of U.S. intelligence leaks suggesting that Zelenskyy has considered trying to capture areas in Russia proper for possible use as bargaining chips in peace negotiations to end the war launched by Moscow in February 2022. This would put him at odds with Western governments that have insisted that weapons they provide must not be used to attack targets in Russia.
Asked about the report, Zelenskyy said: “We don’t attack Russian territory, we liberate our own legitimate territory.”
“We have neither the time nor the strength (to attack Russia),” he said, according to an official interpreter. “And we also don’t have weapons to spare, with which we could do this.”
“We are preparing a counterattack for the illegally occupied areas based on our constitutionally defined legitimate borders, which are recognized internationally,” Zelenskyy said.
Among the areas still occupied by Russia are the Crimean peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine with mainly Russian-speaking populations.
The Ukrainian president is visiting allies in search of further arms to help his country fend off the Russian invasion, and funds to rebuild what’s been destroyed by more than a year of devastating conflict.
A Luftwaffe jet flew Zelenskyy to the German capital from Rome, where he had met Saturday with Pope Francis and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni.
It was his first visit to Berlin since the start of the war and came a day after the German government announced a new package of military aid for Ukraine worth more than 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.
Zelenskyy thanked Scholz for Germany’s political, financial and military support, saying the country is now second only behind the United States in providing aid to Ukraine — and joked that he is working to make it the biggest donor.
“German air defense systems, artillery, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are saving Ukrainian lives and bringing us closer to victory. Germany is a reliable ally! Together we are bringing peace closer!” he wrote on Twitter after the meeting.
Scholz said Berlin has so far given Kyiv some 17 billion euros in bilateral aid and that it can expect more in future.
“We will support you for as long as necessary,” he said, adding that it is up to Russia to end the war by withdrawing its troops.
After initially hesitating to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons, Germany has become one of the biggest suppliers of arms to Ukraine, including Leopard 1 and 2 battle tanks, and the sophisticated IRIS-T SLM air-defense system. Modern Western hardware is considered crucial if Ukraine is to succeed in its planned counteroffensive against Russian troops.
Zelenskyy said one reason for his latest visit to allied capitals was to forge a “fighter jet coalition” that would provide Ukraine with the combat planes it needs to counter Russia’s air dominance.
Germany has said in the past that it doesn’t have the F-16 jets Ukraine needs and Scholz responded to questions about possible plane deliveries by referring to the anti-aircraft system it has provided to Kyiv.
“That’s what we as Germany are now concentrating on,” he said.
In Ukraine, officials on Sunday denied that the country had anything to do with the downing of two Russian helicopters close to the border the day before.
In a joint statement after their meeting, Scholz and Zelenskyy said they support efforts to bring those responsible for atrocities in Ukraine to justice and noted the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
They also pledged to ensure sanctions against Russia aren’t circumvented and to explore possibilities for using frozen Russian assets to pay for damage caused in Ukraine.
Germany said it supports Kyiv’s efforts to join the European Union and backed a 2008 vow by NATO members to pave the way for Ukraine to eventually join the military alliance.
Zelenskyy first met with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s head of state, who was snubbed by Kyiv last year, apparently over his previous close ties to Russia, causing a chill in diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Germany. Since then, both Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz have visited Ukraine.
After meeting Scholz and other senior officials at the chancellery, the two leaders flew to the western city of Aachen for Zelenskyy to receive the prestigious International Charlemagne Prize, awarded to him and the people of Ukraine.
In her congratulatory speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen compared the war in Ukraine to the fall of the Iron Curtain more than 30 years ago.
“Every generation has its moment when it has to stand up to defend democracy and what it believes in,” she said. “For us, that moment has come.”
Zelenskyy accused Moscow of trying to turn back the clock of European history in its attack on Ukraine.
“Modern Russia waged war not just on us, as a free and sovereign state, not just against united Europe as a global symbol of peace and prosperity,” he said in his acceptance speech. “This is Russia’s war for the past.”
In other developments:
Zelenskyy’s chief aide, Andriy Yermak, said Sunday that five civilians died in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region when an unexploded Russian shell blew up.
Overnight, Russia launched a “massive” attack on Ukraine with Iranian-made Shahed explosive drones, which left more than 30 people wounded, according to the Ukrainian military.
Eighteen of the 23 drones were shot down, but those that got through, and wreckage from those intercepted, damaged 50 apartment buildings, private homes and other buildings, the military said without providing further details.
Russia also hit the western city of Ternopil and southern city of Mykolaiv with rockets, wounding an unspecified number of civilians.
Shelling by Russian forces killed two people — a 59-year-old woman and a 65-year-old man — in the Chuhuiv district of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv province on Sunday, regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov reported on Telegram.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported Sunday that Ukrainian forces had killed two of its colonels in the Bakhmut area.
Jordans reported from Berlin. David Rising in Kyiv and Elise Morton in London contributed to this report.
As Virginia school divisions investigate increases in chronic student absences, data shows the state’s homeless youth rate is returning close to pre-pandemic levels.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia recorded about 10,000 homeless youth in public schools annually. Those numbers dropped by nearly 3,000 students in the 2020-21 school year. Since then, however, they have steadily increased, reaching about 9,000 students, as pandemic-era protections and extra funding for programs like rental assistance and food assistance have expired.
School divisions and advocates are now swiftly moving to address the rise in homeless students as relief measures unwind for students and families.
Barbara Duffield, executive director for the nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection, an organization that combats homelessness, said actual cases could be even higher than what school officials have identified.
“It’s hard to know if a child is experiencing homelessness,” said Duffield. “But when children aren’t even in school or coming on a regular basis, then that really requires proactive outreach to the community — putting posters up in motels, talking to the service provider community, word of mouth, all of those things — to let families who aren’t in school know that they can come to school, and they can get the help to do that.”
Loudoun County, one of the most affluent counties in the country, reported the highest number of homeless students in Virginia at the start of the 2022–23 school year, with 1,240 cases, according to the Virginia Department of Education. That equates to nearly one in seven homeless students in Virginia attending school in Loudoun County.
Dan Adams, a spokesperson for Loudoun County Public Schools, did not respond to a request for an interview. However, he said that 36% of the division’s McKinney-Vento students — a reference to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which defines homeless students as those “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” — were identified as chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 18 or more days of the academic year.
“LCPS staff, notably the Office of Student Services, is working hard to address this concerning trend,” Adams said in an email to the Mercury.
According to Virginia Department of Education data, Fairfax, Henrico, Prince William and Chesterfield counties round out the top five localities in Virginia with the most homeless students during the current school year.
Student absences have recently come under scrutiny in Virginia after the Board of Education decided to resume considering chronic absenteeism as a factor in school accreditation last month. The decision went against a request by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, which had asked that a pandemic policy suspending consideration of the measure in accreditation reviews be continued.
Chronic absenteeism is one of nine factors the state looks at when determining whether a school meets the state’s educational standards. Researchers with Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission have linked school accreditation and student academic performance.
The Board of Education previously suspended the use of the absenteeism factor due to the sharp increase in respiratory illnesses among youth and the COVID-19 pandemic. The absenteeism rate in Virginia schools has been more than four times higher in the 2022–23 school year than in the two years before the pandemic, according to a Virginia Association of School Superintendents survey.
Addressing the rate
Youth advocates said that nationally, almost 42% of students who were homeless were chronically absent from school in 2021, twice the chronic absenteeism rate seen among non-homeless students.
While many homeless students are accompanied by at least one adult family member, some are unaccompanied. In Henrico, for example, the number of McKinney-Vento students classified as unaccompanied reached a high of 18% in 2021–22, but has fallen to its pre-pandemic level of 13% this school year.
In Virginia, several programs are aimed at helping homeless students. William & Mary, which administers Virginia’s Program for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the Virginia Department of Education, tracks homelessness in public education, uses public awareness efforts to help improve homeless student attendance and success, and awards grants to school divisions.
Recently, Duffield said SchoolHouse Connection has been helping divisions determine how best to use COVID-19 relief funds to address student absences and learning losses. Fairfax County, for example, is looking to hire an attendance specialist to focus on connecting with families experiencing homelessness and help get their children to school regularly. And other funds can help with hygiene, clothing and other basic needs that can prevent a child from not coming to school.
“That money can meet some of these critical needs right now,” Duffield said.
Lisa Ann Abernathy, a Henrico education specialist and school liaison for McKinney-Vento services, said students facing homelessness can develop trauma as a result of being shuffled around from place to place. Students can also develop a fear of being bullied and anxiety because of difficulties with hygiene or wearing the same clothes.
“All of the trauma can affect a child’s willingness, ability and preparedness — both their emotional and physical well-being — to be able to go to school, and that’s where the cycle of chronic absenteeism and homelessness go hand-in-hand,” Abernathy said.
Henrico reported 501 cases of homelessness at the start of the 2022-23 school year. However, Abernathy said staff identified about 1,100 students who are eligible for McKinney-Vento. She said about 200 students were already chronically absent before being identified.
Homeless students face a range of living situations, from emergency or transitional shelters to homes of relatives or family members to public places such as bus or train stations or abandoned buildings.
Experts refer to the constant movement from place to place that many homeless people experience as “couch surfing.”
For students facing homelessness, the lack of a fixed regular residence isn’t the only challenge. Transportation can be an issue getting to school. Duffield said federal funds have been used to provide gas vouchers and funding to repair cars.
School divisions can also have difficulty identifying students in need because they are moving around from different homes to shelters and, in some cases, are alone. Under federal law, children identified as homeless have the right to stay enrolled in the same school district even if they’re living elsewhere.
Some districts are attempting to expand their aid to students in need as homelessness levels return to pre-pandemic rates. Starting in July, Henrico schools will have a full-time social worker who will focus on attendance and identify any barriers for families.
“We know that if a student completes high school, that is the number one factor that determines whether or not they’re going to break out of homelessness as a young adult,“ Abernathy said.
Funding and legislative efforts
Advocates fighting to address homelessness said one of the chief concerns moving forward is the end of relief funding for school divisions in September 2024.
“It has been a lifeline for schools,” said Rachael Deane, CEO of the child advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children.
As more relaxed pandemic rules expire, families and students facing economic insecurity have also started to lose protections and assistance with rental relief, health coverage and food benefits. Advocates are also concerned about students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged homes and those who identify as transgender or nonbinary, in need of mental health services.
“The funding is running out, but the challenges have not ended,” Deane said. “So we are very much concerned about schools having enough resources and the right resources to support students and families coming in through their doors.”
Duffield said SchoolHouse Connection is advocating for Congress to continue providing relief funding to support homeless children and youth.
In Virginia, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2022 allowing youth over age 14 to access shelter without a guardian. And in February, lawmakers passed legislation changing the state’s guidance on addressing childhood trauma to help schools manage students in need, including those who are homeless. However, a bill to require school divisions to make meals available to all students at no cost failed in a House subcommittee.
Voices for Virginia’s Children and others say they are monitoring the General Assembly’s decisions on budget amendments, including $230 million in proposed behavioral health investments that would increase funding for school-based mental health services for students facing challenges including homelessness.
The group is also following a proposal to fund more nursing and psychologist positions to help with increased behavioral issues among students. Advocates say the instability surrounding homeless students is one of several factors contributing to the rise in disruptive behaviors in schools.
Lawmakers have not provided a timetable for when a budget agreement is expected to be reached.
Moving forward, Abernathy said people should drop any bias they have against individuals who are homeless.
“People’s lives can turn upside down in a heartbeat,” she said. “Homelessness is not a choice. It is real, and it’s the kids who suffer. Our idea is to put that bias away, pack that baggage somewhere else, and just focus on moving these children forward.”
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Last week’s local meeting with transportation leaders focused on both imminent and long-term road work.
The meeting included information and updates on a range of plans for both small projects and big-ticket items such as the $55,377,791 Garrisonville Road widening project selected for approval in the state’s Smart Scale program, which is among the transportation funding programs the Commonwealth Transportation Board will vote on this summer.
Last week’s local meeting was headed by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller III, and included updates from Fredericksburg Virginia Department of Transportation head Marcie Parker on local road work and the two major projects on Interstate 95.
Miller said the state has a lot of money for transportation, but noted that funding is just the start for projects, which don’t get done with a “click of your fingers.”
He added the transportation projects are expensive and costs continue to increase. Miller said they would do all they can to get the right projects in the hopper.
Several members of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors and Spotsylvania County’s head of transportation spoke during public comment period.
They talked about a variety of issues, but there seemed to be consensus that a lane expansion should be considered for chokepoint problems on southbound I-95 between State Route 3 in Fredericksburg and the first U.S. 1 exit in Spotsylvania.
That area of the interstate is the endpoint of the new southbound Rappahannock River crossing lanes, between U.S. 17 in Stafford and State Route 3. Work continues on the northbound crossing project, which covers the same area of I-95.
Stafford supervisors also asked the transportation leaders to consider help funding a study of U.S. 1 running through the region as a way to possibly contend with the traffic jams on the highway and local roads when things go awry on I-95.
Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Ian Ollis agreed with the idea of studying U.S. 1 when he addressed the transportation leaders at the meeting.
During her update on road work in the Fredericksburg VDOT’s 14-county district, which is ramping up with the warmer weather, Parker gave a glimmer of hope for I-95 drivers while also highlighting some of the work on tap for the rest of the year.
Crews will resurface 821 lane miles this year, which will cost $61 million, Parker said. Crews also will restripe 2,463 miles of roads in the district.
Parker added that “we do still have a lot of construction” happening locally, especially on I-95 with the northbound crossing work and the 10-mile extension of the electronically tolled express lanes in Stafford.
“If anybody drives I-95, you have seen a lot of construction” with “two major projects really that are out there right now. The end is in sight, I promise,” Parker said. “So, by the end of the year, hopefully, all the lanes will be open” on the northbound crossing and express lanes extension.
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436