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13,500 Chesterfield middle and high school students are returning to the classroom for the first time since November

13,500 Chesterfield middle and high school students are returning to the classroom for the first time since November

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About 13,500 middle and high schoolers are returning to Chesterfield County Public Schools on Tuesday, less than half of all eligible students.

All 33,732 Chesterfield sixth- through 12th-graders were given the option to end virtual learning and head back into the classroom five days a week, but only 40% took the offer.

Come Tuesday, the older students join the nearly 13,900 elementary and career and technical students who returned last month.

In November, after sending students back in clusters to participate in hybrid learning, the district abruptly closed in response to rising COVID-19 cases. School officials did not provide a number of students who returned in the fall or a breakdown of the return school by school.

At the request of the School Board, a school-by-school breakdown was provided for the spring return. More middle schoolers than high schoolers are returning, according to the data.

Annette Ruzicka, a Midlothian mother of six — three of whom are in elementary, middle and high school — has not sent her school-age children back to school since last March.

Having family members who are immunocompromised drove Ruzicka’s decision not to send her kids back. Although teachers have had a chance to be vaccinated, there is still no vaccine for students, and Ruzicka’s children could contract the virus at their respective school and bring it home.

At times, virtual learning has been a challenge for Ruzicka’s family. Her daughter, who attends Bettie Weaver Elementary, has had her daily schedule change five times, with multiple teachers during this school year. Ruzicka’s elementary and middle school daughters share a bedroom, meaning her youngest needs to wake up early each school morning and leave the room so her sister can begin learning at 7:35 a.m. Ruzicka’s other children attend Midlothian Middle and the International Baccalaureate program at Midlothian High.

Ruzicka would like to see more social and emotional support for students at home, especially for students to connect with extracurricular activities and clubs.

Despite the challenges, Ruzicka said the elementary school level is manageable because Bettie Weaver has designated teachers to strictly either teach virtual or in-person students. That hasn’t happened for her older children. Her children have also learned life skills through schooling at home, including time management and organizational skills.

“There’s no bell in my house that says it’s time to switch classes. They have to be responsible for getting on their Google Meets when they need to,” Ruzicka said.

“The social and emotional part of it has been very difficult, but I think as far as the actual learning, the teachers and CCPS have done a tremendous job of delivering the curriculum and helping the kids be able to be independent in managing themselves in the virtual world.”

In the fall, almost a dozen Chesterfield teachers spoke to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the hybrid return of students. The teachers, who spoke on background for fear of retribution, shared accounts of returning to classrooms under challenging circumstances.

A few high school teachers recounted having at the most 14 students in the classroom to as few as four students total, during the entire school day. Almost all teachers said students began to not show up, returning to virtual learning during the brief time school buildings were opened.

Come Tuesday, no Chesterfield high school, besides the Carver College and Career Academy, has an in-person rate of 50% or higher; the academy sits right at 50%.

Manchester High has the highest return rate of 42%, followed by Matoaca at 39% and Monacan at 38%. James River has the lowest return rate of 25%.

For middle schools, more students are returning to buildings Tuesday than at the high school level. Tomahawk Creek Middle has a return rate of 66%, followed by Robious at 54% and Midlothian at 52%. Falling Creek has the lowest share of pupils returning at 33%.

As far as overall district enrollment, there are nearly 2,000 fewer students in pre-K through 12th grades than last year, according to state education data. There are approximately 60,900 students in the Chesterfield school system for the 2020-21 academic year.

The largest dip in enrollment is at the kindergarten level, which has about 650 fewer students than last year.

Several elementary schools bore the brunt of enrollment decreases, with schools nearing or surpassing a 100-student drop-off. O.B. Gates Elementary had the lowest number of students enroll for September.

No Chesterfield middle or high schools saw a sharp decrease in enrollment.

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