As Brittany Crawford watched COVID-19 cases rise by a million in a week nationwide, the decision loomed.
The past few months had been challenging as her son Aden, a second-grader at Kersey Creek Elementary, learned from their Hanover County home while she worked for Capital One from the same room.
He needed the structure and socialization of a classroom, she thought, but at what cost?
She went back and forth as a Nov. 20 deadline approached to apply for in-person learning. Then she took a look around the neighborhood. Most of the neighbors sent their kids back face to face, and Aden was playing with them anyway.
Hanover, one of the few school systems in the state to offer five-day, in-person instruction, has seen an influx of requests from families now engaged in virtual learning who want to send students back into classrooms this spring. They were asked to make the same choice before the school year began. The school system largely held them to that decision, excepting special circumstances, until now.
HCPS received 1,236 applications during a decision period over the past few weeks from families hoping to return. Only 186 families want to swap from in-person to virtual learning. Forty are attempting to re-enroll their children from private or home schooling to face to face. Ten are asking to re-enroll for HCPS’ virtual school.
Most of the families attempting to switch are those with elementary schoolers, according to data provided by the school system. School officials expect to finalize the number of applicants by Monday.
School administrators maintain the choice belongs to families. But space and staff have yet to be determined; maintaining social distance and adhering to new cleaning requirements are a priority.
The school system hasn’t made guarantees, and school officials say it all comes down to the numbers. It’s the same problem School Board Chairman John Axselle III said they ran into at the start of the semester when they first processed requests.
On Wednesday, Crawford submitted a request to bring Aden back into the classroom.
Hanover was the only area school system to give parents a choice for instruction heading into the school year. Sixty percent went back to the classroom. The remaining 40% opted to learn from home. All requests submitted at the start of the semester were approved.
Statewide, 15 school systems have welcomed all students back in person. Hanover is the only one besides Galax operating on a five-days-a-week schedule, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
Hanover parents had two weeks to submit their wishes for the next semester.
The school system says it’s a binding decision, just like it was at the start of the semester — though a spokesman for the system said families can contact their counselors with concerns. Sometimes, kids have been able to switch.
Each family’s application will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by division staff and administrators, with factors like family needs, technology access and grades, among others, being taken into consideration, said Hanover schools spokesman Chris Whitley. The process is conducted via phone call by school staff, who collect information on preferred placement, transportation and internet access according to a call center script obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Statewide guidance from the governor’s office recommends schools give priority to the most vulnerable learners: pre-K through third grade, those with disabilities and English language learners.
Whitley said the school system is doing its best to provide choices, but challenges remain. Some students learning online are experiencing isolation; families are struggling with internet connection problems; and parents with younger children need to return to work, he said.
The school system has taken steps to prevent the spread of the potentially fatal virus in classrooms, but some parents worry whether it’s enough.
Rachel Levy and Sarah Butler, Hanover parents whose kids are learning online, questioned the school system’s decision to keep everyone 3 feet away from one another, instead of 6 feet, in school buildings.
“Neither situation is going to be a perfect one, not in the middle of a pandemic,” Butler said of both modes of learning.
Whitley said that while there’s been hesitance about in-person learning and COVID-19’s impact on schools, he’s seen the feeling fade and more confidence expressed.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, the Richmond area has seen 24,654 cases as of Saturday. Hanover accounted for 2,163 of them, the least of the four regions.
The semester has put Hanover families in two different worlds. On a recent Friday morning, a group of backpack-clad kids stood near the intersection of Oak Bower and Tangle Pond lanes in Mechanicsville a little before 9 a.m. to wait for the bus.
Across the street at the house with the aqua door, class was in session in what used to be the Butler-Gee family’s garage.
Bar tops with black stools come together in an L-formation in the corner. A TV sits at the joining parts. Two blue couches filled the rest of the space. It isn’t quite done yet — shiplap ordered from North Carolina and nailed in place by hand covers the walls except for a section above the TV.
It was a renovation Butler guessed cost around $5,000, not including electricity and adding internet. Just like the Crawfords, the family had to augment internet services to accommodate virtual learning, adding an extra 1 GB and five eero routers.
Butler and her husband, Tim Butler, who works for the Richmond Fire Department, hope to send all five of their kids back in person next semester to Washington-Henry Elementary and Chickahominy Middle. It’s time for Sarah Butler to get back to work — her work-from-home order lifts Feb. 1 but will be re-evaluated mid-December, with the rise in cases.
She’s worried about her job responsibilities. In the past, her company, Professional by Fama, has been willing to work with her. It’s headquartered in Bergamo in the Lombardy region of Italy — the hardest hit by the virus in the country, according to The New York Times.
But it’s still a business, and she can always be replaced, she said. Taking a step back from her position as a director of sales to a less demanding role could be an option, but it would come with consequences.
“To have to take a substantial pay cut and/or have to figure out alternative measures of what I’m going to do is going to severely impact our household,” she said.
Levy, who has two sons at Patrick Henry High School and a daughter at Liberty Middle School, said the notion of doing virtual school was a “no brainer” when they first signed on.
Levy has decided to keep her kids virtual, even though she knows it isn’t ideal for her daughter, who normally loves school.
“She said that it’s all the things that are bad about school and none of the good things,” Levy said.
Axselle said Hanover will work to adapt to shifting needs, even deploying mobile learning centers, if that’s what it takes.
“Nothing’s off the table as we address this, and ... we need to look at everything and consider all the options. ... What’s that wonderful phrase everybody likes, ‘Think outside the box?’” Axselle said. “You know, and that’s what we’re doing. I mean, we’re gonna try very much to accommodate everyone.”
The school system said families should know by early January if their request was approved. Sarah Butler said the timeline gives her only weeks to plan what she’s going to do with work before the kids are scheduled to start school again.
Crawford said that if their family’s request doesn’t go through, she’s confident they could make it through another virtual semester. Her work-from-home order is tentatively over in March, though it’s been changed before and she gets a 90-day notice beforehand if there’s a switch.
The most frustrating part, for her, has been the inability to plan ahead given the binding decision.
“That’s what makes the decision even more difficult because you’re making a decision for like six months, and you don’t really know that far out if your working situation is going to change, if, you know, COVID cases are going to change,” Crawford said.
For now, it’s wait and see.