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With Chesterfield divided over school reopening options, School Board votes for virtual learning

Dueling reopening rallies in Chesterfield — one seeking a five-day return to school, the other, remote learning — and a recommendation from the Chesterfield schools Superintendent for a virtual start set the table for debate at a marathon School Board meeting Monday night.

The county School Board heard three COVID-19 presentations and opinions from nearly 30 community members before evaluating how best to prioritize learning while protecting students and staff; a choice that has pitted some parents against teachers as similar talks unfold across the country.

The board ultimately voted 4-1 to implement virtual learning this fall for all but the highest-need of the system's roughly 63,000 students.

School Board member Ryan Harter was the lone no vote.

“My fear is that the decision to start virtually is going to drive a wedge and widen achievement gaps,” Harter said. “Families with financial means you’re going to find a way for the children to grow academically. We know this won’t be the case for all families,” Harter said.

School Board Chairwoman Debbie Bailey said she’s “angry and frustrated,” the decision to reopen schools fell onto the board.

“My anger, frustration and sadness nevertheless has led me to a decision. Until a vetted out metrics for a safe return to school is established how can we gamble with children’s safety,” Bailey said.

The superintendent’s recommendation is to begin virtually, however the school system’s most vulnerable students — language learners and special education students — would come back to school as soon as possible. A transition process into a hybrid model to bring back all students would follow, said system Spokesman Tim Bullis. As of now, all teachers will return to the classroom come Sept. 8.

The debate over what’s best for kids, parents and educators boiled over outside of the Chesterfield Police Department ahead of the meeting.

Parents who wanted children to return five days a week and Chesterfield Education Association members converged outside of the agency before the meeting began, braving a triple-digit heat index to make their voices heard. They began chanting at one another half an hour before the meeting began.

The pro school start side shouted, “We want a choice” and “Unions suck,” while the pro-virtual start group chanted “First nine online” and “You have a choice, we don’t!”

A woman in the crowd wanting schools to open yelled: “Open our schools or get a new job.”

When school board members arrived to enter the building, community members wanting schools to reopen chanted “Our school, our choice.”

The School Board’s six options were:

  • returning to school normally five days a week;
  • students attending on alternating days, either twice or three times a week;
  • by 50% again, the students going back for two consecutive days a week;
  • divided into quarters, each student section only going to school once a week; and
  • maintaining virtual learning.

As of Monday morning, there had been 3,472 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 65 deaths within county limits, according to state data.

Superintendent Merv Daugherty recommended a virtual start hours before the vote, tying the choice to the third phase of Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 plan, which allows all restaurants and nonessential businesses to open at full capacity.

“We aren’t asking for the whole [virtual] school year,” said Sonia Smith, president of the Chesterfield Education Association. “Let’s start that way to give the school division time to put all the safety measures in,[including] to make sure air quality is top-notch.”

In a school system-driven survey from June 18 to July 2, 82% of families said they plan to send their child back to school. However, the school system noted the survey was shared over social media, so non-Chesterfield families potentially could have taken the survey.

Christine Melendez, a Chesterfield high school Spanish teacher and CEA board member, said she was out on Monday to “advocate for those who unfortunately have not left their homes [and] advocating for those who might not understand this is an option, there is a vote.”

Republican Del. Carrie Coyner, a former Chesterfield school board member, spoke at the pro in-person return rally.

“If it were me, I would be focusing on students with disabilities, language learners and our Pre-K through third-graders [to get them] back in school full time. They are the most vulnerable,” Coyner said in an interview.

“Our middle and high income families will be fine ... but our low income families don’t have those same opportunities,” including small group home schooling and hiring teachers for their children, Coyner said.

Speaking to the group, Coyner said, “I really hoped our crowd would be more diverse.”

Latino residents in Chesterfield make up 38.3% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases, with Black residents making up 23.2% of all cases, according to state data.

Linwood Johnson, a Richmond resident, whose grandmother worked in Chesterfield schools cafeterias for five years and whose brother is an incoming senior at Meadowbrook High, said besides considering students, teachers, cafeteria workers, custodial staff and others must be factored in.

“I hate that this is a political issue,” Johnson said. “You can’t risk people’s lives.”

Emma Clark, a Chesterfield County school teacher, said it’s “unfortunate that this situation lends itself to be divisive,” noting the two rallies.

“The parents versus teachers dynamic is that has always been used against teachers,” Clark added. “On the surface level, it becomes very easy for parents to become angry with school staff but the reality is … it’s not the fault of the schools, it is the fault of a government who has disinvested in schools.”

For Paula Halloran, a single mother of five children living in the Bermuda district, “it is impossible for me to ensure my children can learn virtually.”

“There is no point in my house when it is quiet. There was no learning in my household this spring,” Halloran added, speaking at the pro return rally.

In a Facebook video over the weekend, Chesterfield Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Leslie Haley called for a hybrid model with the understanding that no family would be forced to return.

“As to the issue of school return, this may be one of the easiest decisions because a hybrid model concerns the needs of all,” Haley said. 

She concluded the video: “This is your [taxpayer] money we’re spending. I think we owe you the opportunity to make your own choice, on your own basis for your own children."

Under a virtual learning scenario, attendance would be taken, assignments required and graded, class participation considered, check-ins between teachers and students monitored and required. Assessment would occur.

During the summer, the school district has offered professional learning opportunities for teachers related to Canvas, the online learning platform as well as how teachers can in a virtual setting “navigate” social-emotional learning, trauma-informed care and positive behavioral intervention.

Henrico County schools Superintendent Amy Cashwell also recommended Monday that the county’s schools reopen virtually, following a decision last week by the Richmond School Board to rely on remote learning this fall. Hanover County schools is offering virtual or five-day options.

This story has been updated.

UPDATED: Henrico superintendent recommends virtual start for upcoming school year

Henrico County Public Schools Superintendent Amy Cashwell is recommending a fully virtual start to the school year, the system announced Monday.

While officials earlier this summer said they were developing a part-time, hybrid reopening plan to limit transmission of COVID-19, the new plan calls for online-only instruction for the first nine weeks of school.

A division news release says the deviation from the preliminary school reopening plan “prioritizes the health and safety of employees, students and families.”

“As heartbreaking as it would be to not see all our students in person on Sept. 8, it is clear to me that this is the most prudent recommendation at this time, based on evolving health information,” Cashwell stated.

Roscoe Cooper, chairman of the Henrico School Board, said in an interview Monday that the recommended plan is not a “done deal,” and that the board will discuss the matter and vote Thursday.

Under the order of Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia’s K-12 public schools have been closed since the outset of the pandemic in March, challenging students, teachers and families to continue instruction online.

With eight weeks before the start of the year for most K-12 schools in Virginia and COVID-19 showing little sign of abating, school divisions are pressed to make difficult choices with ramifications for health, safety and equity.

The school division’s announcement Monday comes after dozens of people rallied outside of a Henrico School Board meeting last week to advocate for options ranging from a five-day school week to the continuation of online learning.

Before last Tuesday’s meeting, school officials said they were still considering a hybrid plan as well as a five-day in-person schedule. In either case, families would be able to opt out of in-school instruction.

Under the hybrid plan, the division’s 50,400 students would be split up to attend school on a rotational basis twice a week, with virtual learning the remaining three days.

In a statement Monday, Henrico Back to School Safely, a grass-roots organization of teachers and parents that coordinated last week’s rally, thanked school officials for considering the change.

“We appreciate the careful consideration of safety that went into this decision,” the group said in a news release. “We look forward to working with leadership to provide a robust learning experience for our students, especially our most vulnerable populations.”

Patrick Miller, a spokesman for the Henrico Education Association, which represents the county’s schoolteachers, thanked the school division and said the association’s board of directors is also encouraging Henrico teachers and community members to remain engaged and to support their counterparts in neighboring counties to “guarantee a safe and equitable” reopening of Richmond-area schools.

Last week, the Richmond School Board endorsed a virtual-only reopening plan for the fall semester. Merv Daugherty, the superintendent of the Chesterfield County school division, is also recommending a virtual-only start.

The Hanover County School Board last week endorsed a tentative five-day school plan, but will allow families to opt out and resume online instruction. Families there would need to commit to either option through the first half of the school year.

While some think it would be safer to continue online learning, many parents and experts are worried about logistical challenges, academic performance, learning retention and mental health impacts from a lack of in-person socialization.

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia, said in an interview Monday that there is no “optimal answer” on what reopening option is best.

“They’re trying to make the best decision you can based on the information that’s available at the time. It’s imperfect,” he said of school districts around the country. “At the same time, the conditions on the ground can change rapidly.”

He said not reopening schools at the start of the year is a reasonable approach to an “extraordinary set of difficult circumstances,” but that challenges are likely to disproportionately impact students from low-income households.

If schools remain closed, he said, a lack of access to quiet space to focus, a computer or internet access could make it difficult for students to learn and advance. He said those inequities are also more likely to impact people of color.

Cooper, who represents the predominately African American district of Fairfield on the School Board, said those issues are of concern to him, but that health and safety of his constituents and school employees must also be considered.

In the news release and a video released Monday, Cashwell said online instruction will be more robust and structured than it was in the final months of the prior school year.

She said the school division will continue to consult health experts and consider plans for a return to in-person instruction later this year.

After ouster, former Richmond Police Chief due $85,000 in severance

What did it cost Richmond to secure the resignation of embattled former police Chief William Smith?

$85,477 in severance pay, according to the city’s Department of Human Resources.

Mayor Levar Stoney asked for Smith’s resignation last month, as his administration and the police department Smith led faced mounting criticism for its handling of protests that began in the city in late May.

The payout adds to more than $2 million in costs the city has incurred responding to the demonstrations, including overtime, equipment and property damage. The total cost is not yet known.

Jim Nolan, a Stoney spokesman, said the payout was calculated under a city policy established in 2017 by the City Council. Efforts to reach Smith were unsuccessful Monday.

His ouster last month came as the Richmond Police Department defended its handling of protests that began after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. Floyd’s death sparked nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and racism.

In Richmond, those demonstrations ran nightly for weeks, drawing hundreds of marchers and a massive police presence to downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Protesters condemned the police department’s use of tear gas, pepper spray and less lethal bullets to control crowds. Police said protesters lobbed rocks, water bottles and other projectiles at them.

After one clash outside of police headquarters shortly before Smith’s resignation, he said his officers had shown “great restraint” in their response.

In mid-June, Stoney announced Smith had resigned.

“Chief Smith is a good man. He has served this city with grace. But we are ready to move in a new direction,” Stoney said at the time.

Smith has not made any public statements since then.

Stoney first tapped William “Jody” Blackwell to lead the police department on an interim basis. Stoney said his administration would conduct a national search for a permanent police chief.

Blackwell’s appointment drew sharp condemnation from protesters. He shot and killed a man while on duty in 2002; a grand jury did not return charges against Blackwell for the incident. He lasted 11 days before news of his plan to step down as interim chief leaked.

Hours later, Stoney announced he had handpicked a new permanent police chief: Gerald Smith. The hasty hire skirted the national search he had promised and broke with a vetting process his administration laid out. To date, his administration has declined to say how many other candidates it vetted before hiring Smith or whether he sat for a formal interview before receiving an offer.

Smith had not formally agreed to the terms of his employment with the city before his introductory press conference in late June, according to an offer letter obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In addition to his $185,000 annual salary, the letter lays out additional compensation the Stoney administration promised Smith: a $12,000 annual payment into a deferred compensation plan for each year he works for the city; up to $11,000 for moving expenses from Charlotte to Richmond; and a $1,300 monthly housing allowance for a year.

Even as the Stoney administration has instituted a hiring freeze and ordered city departments to halt discretionary spending in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Will Smith’s is the second large payout it has authorized in recent months.

The mayor’s administration also agreed to pay former housing director Douglas Dunlap about $99,000 when it parted ways with him in March.

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breaking alert
Richmond prosecutor clears police in several complaints related to civil unrest

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin has cleared city police officers of any criminal wrongdoing in several complaints related to the recent civil unrest, including one in which a marked SUV was driven through protesters blocking its way.

Missing from the complaints, five of which were detailed in a report the prosecutor’s office released by email around 3:15 p.m. Monday, is the June 1 incident in which officers tear-gassed a crowd of protesters at the foot of the Robert E. Lee monument 20 minutes ahead of curfew.

“This is not a complete list of all of the allegations that our office is still reviewing, and I will announce my findings when those investigations are concluded,” the report reads.

The report comes more than 50 days after the first demonstrations took place in Richmond on May 29, ignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody four days earlier.

Since June 1, McEachin said a group of experienced attorneys in her office, which does not have investigators, has been reviewing complaints from the community, reports from the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, footage from officers’ body-worn cameras and social media, and interviews from witnesses.

Two of the allegations do not appear to have involved a potential crime. One involves a tattoo on an officer’s arm that some claimed was “the emblem of an unknown white nationalist or white supremacist organization,” the report said. “In fact, the tattoo is the logo of Northern Red, a company that had provided firearms training to the officer.”

Another instance involved a photo, taken years before the officer joined the department, in which the officer appears to have darkened their skin. The report found that rather than painted brown or black, the officer’s skin was reddened as if sunburned for a beach-themed college party.

“A comparison of the social media photograph with the original photograph clearly demonstrates that the social media picture had been altered to appear as though the officer was in ‘blackface,’ ” the report said.

Two other complaints stem from the aftermath of the June 1 tear gas incident, which the report only obliquely references. As demonstrators fled the chemical haze around the monument, an officer appeared to target a man nearby with OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray.

McEachin’s report stated that the man who was doused was throwing water bottles at police, and photos to support the findings were attached.

“One frame of the footage captures what appears to be a water bottle in his throwing hand while another shows the object flying through the air at police as the officer deploys his OC canister to prevent any further violence,” the report said.

The report also dismissed an allegation that officers appeared to spit on a detained person — a video posted on social media sparked outrage as viewers referenced the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The officers were unmasked and “affected by their exposure to chemical agents,” the report said. “(Body-worn camera) video footage clearly shows individual officers spitting onto the street in an effort to clear their throats. No officers spat on or in the direction of the seated protester.”

The prosecutor’s office did its own frame-by-frame comparison and found a video posted to social media “was the result of the distorted visual perspective,” the report said.

It also cited “an unsolicited forensic report” published by a forensic video consultant on the online publishing platform Medium to corroborate its finding.

The day after the June 13 SUV incident, Mayor Levar Stoney publicly called for an investigation, and asked the police department to place the officer who drove through the crowd on administrative leave. Later, Stoney told officers in a private meeting captured on video that he did not see anything criminal based on the body-worn camera.

Only one of the three officers in the SUV turned on their body-worn camera, according to a supplementary report specific to this incident. That officer was seated in the front passenger seat of the SUV.

That video, along with three others provided by onlookers, were reviewed as part of the prosecutors’ report. Prosecutors spoke to a witness who said “he did not see the SUV strike anyone nor did he see anyone strike the SUV.”

McEachin reached out directly to a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter who witnessed the incident, but the newspaper declined to give a voluntary statement to authorities.

Several people on bikes had formed a blockade at the entrance of the traffic circle on Monument Avenue where it intersects with North Allen Avenue at the Lee monument, for hours leading up to the encounter.

Around 9:30 p.m., as the SUV slowly approached, more joined. The report does not say why the SUV approached the crowd, but said the mood of the crowd “changed” as the officers got closer to the monument.

“The protesters deliberately created a ‘standoff” with the police,” the report said. “Given a volatile situation and limited options, the police chose to leave the scene to avoid a face-to-face confrontation with the protesters who were blocking the street. The videos show the SUV slowly reversing while blowing its horn and then slowly turning right, away from the protesters, and going onto the grassy area where there are no people at that time.

“There are no people in the path of the SUV for seven seconds while it is circumventing the protesters. It is only when the protesters realize that SUV is about to get away from them that they then run over and re-engage the police by standing in front of or hitting a moving vehicle. Contrary to many news reports or social media posts, there is no objective evidence that the SUV was deliberately driven through an unsuspecting group of protesters. Any contact that occurred between any person and the SUV was due to that person’s individual decision to make contact with the vehicle.”

In prior reports, The Times-Dispatch has described the incident as follows:

No one was injured when the SUV forced its way through the protesters, who had been blocking the intersection of Monument and North Allen avenues for hours leading up to the encounter. After the SUV mounted the curb to avoid the protesters, the crowd moved in front of the SUV, standing against its bumper as it revved forward. The scene was recorded, and witnessed by two Times-Dispatch reporters. Police have said the driver was assaulted through the open window.

The prosecutor’s report says the officer was punched in the head and that several things were thrown at the vehicle throughout the encounter. As the SUV fled down Monument Avenue, its rear window was shattered.

“It is against the law to drive a motor vehicle on the city sidewalks. It is also against the law for any pedestrian to interfere with or deliberately stop a vehicle someone else is driving for the sole purpose of impeding its progress on the road,” the report said.

McEachin ended the second report saying she found no evidence that the officer driving the SUV “operated the vehicle in a malicious, unlawful, reckless or improper manner.”

State unemployment trust fund is projected to end the year $750 million in the red

The state trust fund that pays for jobless benefits is expected to have a $750 million deficit by the end of December amid a huge influx of unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a presentation Monday from the Virginia Employment Commission.

That’s a dramatic decline from the $1.45 billion balance that the state’s unemployment compensation trust fund had on Jan. 1, VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess told state lawmakers during a virtual meeting of the Commission on Unemployment Compensation on Monday.

The $1.45 billion in the fund was a record level, Hess added.

But then the pandemic hit and Hess said the state started tapping more into the trust fund, which is funded by taxes on Virginia businesses to cover the cost of jobless benefits for workers who are laid off or furloughed.

The enormous number of jobless claims that have been filed since March pushed the trust fund to a $500 million balance earlier this month, Hess explained in her presentation.

But by Dec. 31, the fund is expected to fall to a $750 million deficit.

“You’ll see negative $750 million, which is a projection,” Hess said. “If we get to that, it will be a record low trust fund balance.”

There have been $6.3 billion in unemployment benefits paid out in Virginia this year, most of which has come from the federal government, Hess said. Nonetheless, Virginia is on the hook for a large spike in benefit costs, according to the VEC.

The agency’s presentation shows that the state is projected to pay $2.6 billion in unemployment benefits, which is about 10 times the amount paid out for all of 2019.

If the federal government does not help reimburse the state for the $2.6 billion, there will a large impact on taxes paid by businesses into the state’s unemployment trust fund, Hess told lawmakers.

“I don’t know that the federal government has ever stepped in to repay or replenish the trust fund for state unemployment insurance. This was nothing that was the result of any employer’s actions. This was caused by an emergency,” Hess said of the job losses from the pandemic.

“There’s no indication that the federal government will take this action now, but short of that, we will see a significant impact to [unemployment] taxes.”

Virginia provides maximum jobless benefits of $378 a week for someone with an annual salary of more than $37,800. The federal government in late March tacked on an additional $600 in weekly benefits for workers laid off or furloughed due to the pandemic, but federal benefits end on July 25.

“We had 1,900 claims a week before the pandemic hit, and then we were dealing with hundreds of thousands of claims a week after that,” Hess said.

By the end of this year, the VEC projects that there will be a total of 1.45 million initial claims for unemployment. By comparison, there were 135,064 initial unemployment filings in 2019, according to figures Hess presented to lawmakers.

Many jobless Virginians have complained they are not receiving much-needed benefits and that they can’t get basic questions about their claims answered by VEC officials.

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, asked Hess during Monday’s meeting about the criticisms of the process in getting benefits.

“What are your bigger problems with delays? Some of the ones that I hear seem to be in the hearing process, and those take longer,” Byron said.

About 91% of the claims from people who are eligible and don’t make any errors during the filing process are being paid within 14 days, Hess said.

But if a claimant indicates he or she quit or won’t return back to work, the case has to be adjudicated, which takes time, she said. She also said the VEC has been adding staff to vet hearing claims.

“But we are cognizant of the fact that so many Virginians in very desperate circumstances are waiting for these benefits, and we are doing everything we can to get staff onto those hearings,” Hess said.

The agency has been hiring staff to deal with record claim levels. The VEC had 432 employees in its unemployment insurance division before the pandemic and that division has more than 700 employees now. Call center staff has been increase from 82 to 450, Hess said, adding that figure is growing.