Hopewell City Public Schools closed schools and canceled virtual classes Friday citing “critical staffing shortages” across the district.
The closure marked the first major disruption to the school system of approximately 4,200 students nearly a month into an academic year with a new year-round calendar, which is operating under a new state law that requires all school districts to offer full-time, in-person instruction.
With Virginia school districts preparing to reopen in the coming weeks amid surging cases of COVID-19 driven by the hyper-transmissible delta variant, Hopewell officials said they closed schools Friday because “staffing became so significantly impacted by quarantines and COVID cases.”
“We are continuing to work closely with Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education on the next steps and that is still in process,” the school division said in a statement. “We will be working through the weekend in partnership with VDH to determine the feasibility of staffing our schools on Monday.”
Superintendent Melody Hackney did not respond to messages Friday. The school division did not say how many students, teachers and school employees have tested positive or potentially been exposed to the virus in its facilities.
The school division provided testing for all of its staff Friday at Hopewell High School, in collaboration with the Virginia Health Department.
In a statement Friday evening, the Crater Health District — which covers the cities of Emporia, Hopewell and Petersburg and the counties of Dinwiddie, Greensville, Prince George, Surry and Sussex — said it was helping the school district develop new mitigation strategies, “including testing of school staff members and establishing a weekly screening protocol.”
“Our school community includes some of our youngest residents — many of whom are too young to be vaccinated — so it is vitally important to take all the measures we can to protect them,” said Crater Health District Director Dr. Alton Hart. “We are working diligently with the school system to develop sustainable plans to keep our students, teachers and other school staff healthy.”
Vaccinations currently are not available for children ages 11 and younger.
The school division, which serves a majority-Black student population about a 30-minute drive south of Richmond, disclosed the closure Thursday evening.
“We are evaluating all aspects of our plans and procedures as we are in consultation with the Virginia Department of Health,” the school division announced in a statement posted on social media. “Our goal continues to be to provide in-person instruction in a way that we maximize health and safety.”
As of Wednesday night, Hopewell schools had seen 77 positive COVID-19 cases, most of which were contracted outside of schools.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a sponsor of the bipartisan school reopening bill that requires schools to provide in-person instruction, said she thinks Hopewell was right to close the schools because of staffing shortages and evidence of high-level transmission.
Dunnavant, who is a medical doctor, said the state law included parameters based on guidance from state and federal health experts that allow schools to temporarily close under certain situations.
“I think we ought to sincerely respect that they’re doing that, because they have all the appropriate guidelines,” she said in an interview Friday. “Trust that people are really trying to do the best thing.”
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who also supported the bill, said Friday that he still thinks state lawmakers made the right choice in requiring school districts to let students attend school five days per week. He said “guardrails” giving school districts some flexibility to close as needed, were also vital.
“Obviously we hope that we don’t see circumstances like this happen many times” in the coming school year, he said.
VanValkenburg, a teacher, added that he thinks mandates requiring students, teachers and school employees to wear masks and get vaccinated would also help mitigate the spread of the virus. Dunnavant said school districts should decide whether to require masks, and that individuals should be allowed to choose whether to get vaccinated.
Public schools in Richmond and Henrico County saw more than 100 quarantines triggered by positive COVID-19 cases stemming from summer programs.