Schools across Virginia will shutter starting Monday for at least two weeks, a significant step in the state’s response to the growing coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision, announced on Friday afternoon, came after Richmond-area school systems already said they would close to help mitigate the spread of the virus, with the number of confirmed cases in the state nearly doubling each of the past two days.
“I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus,” Northam said. “This is a fluid and fast-changing situation. We will do everything possible to ensure that students who rely on school nutrition programs continue to have access to meals, and that the disruption to academics is as minimal as possible.”
Each of the state’s 133 school districts will decide how schools will be staffed during the closures, which affect all of the K-12 schools in the state. That includes Virginia’s private schools.
Northam, whose decision is in line with what states are doing across the country, said the Virginia Department of Education is “working closely” with school systems and the Department of Social Services to make sure students are fed while schools are closed.
“Virginia will continue to explore and implement innovative approaches to provide meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch during this closure,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.
The state applied for a waiver, which was accepted, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove the requirement that food be served to students in a group setting and consumed on-site, which is normally the case for summer food service programs, for example.
“This will enable approved sponsors to allow meals to be taken away from the site and consumed elsewhere, thereby allowing for social distancing,” said Angela Kline, the director of the USDA’s Policy and Program Development Division, in the letter approving Virginia’s waiver.
Northam on Thursday declared a state of emergency, and local governments in the Richmond region followed suit.
Before Northam’s announcement Friday, Chesterfield County Public Schools and Hanover County Public Schools announced that they would be closing for at least two weeks.
“This step is being taken to limit large crowds and practice social distancing, as we do our part to help contain the spread of this international pandemic,” Chesterfield schools chief Merv Daugherty said. “No CCPS or external activities will be held inside of our facilities during this time.”
Chesterfield’s closure is effective Saturday, while Hanover’s closure for students starts Monday. Hanover teachers and staff should expect “more detailed guidance” soon, Superintendent Michael Gill said.
“We understand this is a significant disruption to your daily lives, and we do not make these decisions lightly,” Gill said. “We believe this is the best decision possible to help protect the health and safety of our students, families, staff, and community. We continue to ask for your patience, understanding, and support as we navigate this difficult and unprecedented situation in our community and country.”
Richmond Public Schools and Henrico County Public Schools announced Thursday that they’d also be closed through at least March 27.
The economic cost
The cost to Virginia’s economy of closing schools for two weeks could be about $444 million, according to an estimate by Chmura Economics and Analytics, a Richmond-based economics research firm. That estimate takes into account the possible decrease in state GDP, or overall economic activity, because of worker absenteeism, as well as workers losing income because they need to stay home to care for children.
“Parents who have access to vacation could declare vacation days, or they could declare sick days,” said Leslie Stratton, a labor economist and chair of the department of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There are a few states that mandate paid sick days. … Virginia is not one of those.”
Many employers are asking their office and professional staff to telecommute and work from home, but businesses in the retail, manufacturing, health care and other sectors of the economy must have employees on site. People working in often lower-paid, service-sector jobs are less likely to have paid time off or flexible work schedules to stay at home, Stratton said.
“To the extent that individuals do not have flexibility on the job, do not have the paid vacation time, or sick leave time, or family time, this could cost them their earnings, or it could cost them their jobs,” Stratton said.
“On the other hand, the coronavirus is hitting the whole economy,” she said. “If people stop going out to eat as much, if we have fewer of these large events drawing tourists to the area, there are going to be economic consequences from that as well. Supply chains here will be affected. The hospitality industry is going to be severely hit.”
Chesterfield schools were closed Friday in preparation for the coronavirus, giving educators a day of preparation.
“Using today as a preparation day for what appeared to be an inevitable closing of schools provided us the opportunity to plan to continue to support students,” Daugherty said. “With this planning day, we will have finalized efforts related to the continuity of operations: employee work expectations, student learning at home, food service opportunities at schools that qualify and a facility/bus cleaning program.”
He added that “additional guidance” will be sent Sunday about food access during the closures.
Chesterfield was the only district in the area to close Friday.
Inside Richmond’s Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School, teachers shuttled between their classrooms, the office and copier as they rushed to prepare learning materials for the two-week break.
“It’s been really encouraging to see all of the energy in the school — teachers trying to do as much as we can to give our students something to work on, to keep them engaged over the break,” said Tori Pierson, an English as a Second Language teacher at the school.
Pierson created a list of options for her students to do while away, including prompts to encourage writing, in hopes that students will spend at least a half hour a day practicing English. She’s also planning virtual lessons, such as a video tour of her apartment and having her students identify the items.
“We’re just trying to be as creative as possible,” she said. “Especially for our students, we need them to keep up with that daily practice of English. They’re learning the most basic structures of the language and if they lose that progress, that’s what we’re most concerned about.”
Librarians wheeled carts of books from classroom to classroom, giving them to students to take home — unsure of when they might be back inside the South Richmond school.
“The kids are just eating them up,” Pierson said.
That’s exactly what Tracy Epp, the district’s chief academic officer, wants to happen.
“We want them to read, read, read,” Epp said.
Epp added that she hopes students dedicate as much as three hours per day toward their schooling during the break.
One potential problem as students shift toward learning away from school is what’s known as the digital divide: some students having access to the internet, while others — normally low-income students — don’t. That’s a primary concern for the next two weeks, said Jon Becker, a professor in VCU’s School of Education.
“We haven’t completely closed the digital divide,” Becker said.
According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone and nearly half don’t have home broadband or a traditional computer.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, sent a letter Friday to leaders of the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies, urging federal lawmakers to have the federal Education Department study the broadband gaps among students and have the Secretary of Education create a plan to address the gap.
“Student success should not be determined by ZIP code, and at a time when schools need to be focusing on keeping their children safe, families shouldn’t be forced to worry about how their children will be able to keep up with their peers because of a lack of access to broadband,” Spanberger wrote.
Becker said that normally, two weeks out of a school year “wouldn’t make that big of a difference” on learning — a mild winter led to almost no school closures this year — but schools are scheduled to start state testing next month.
“It’s not so much the taking two weeks out of the year, it’s the idea of two or three weeks and coming back right into testing,” Becker said. “That feels like it puts an undue burden on the students. It makes an already-stressful situation even more stressful.”
Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the agency is communicating with school districts about testing flexibility.
“We’re looking at whether there’s a need to extend the window for the writing tests,” said Pyle, referencing the test that starts April 13. “We’re also looking at other things knowing this is a fluid situation.”
That includes potential waivers if there are “prolonged shutdowns.”
The SAT tests scheduled for Midlothian, Douglas Freeman, Mills Godwin, Hermitage, Henrico, Highland Springs and Varina high schools on Saturday have been canceled, while the testing at other Richmond-area schools was still on, as of Friday afternoon, according to the College Board. The New York-based organization said test-takers should check to see if their site is closed before leaving for the test.
“The College Board and our members will be flexible, thoughtful, and collaborative in exploring ways to continue to support student learning and provide opportunities to test,” the College Board said in a statement, adding that those registered for a canceled test will receive a refund.
The next SAT testing is scheduled for May 2 and June 6.
Staff writer John Reid Blackwell contributed to this report.