As the sun beat down on Glen Allen High’s parking lot Tuesday afternoon over Henrico County Public Schools teachers, parents and students chanting “First nine online” — a nod to begin the school year virtually — the school system announced two draft reopening plans that would bring students back into the classroom.
The school system is exploring a hybrid plan, where the division’s roughly 50,400 students would attend school twice a week, with virtual learning the remaining three days, or a five-day in-person schedule. Families would be able to opt out of in-school instruction.
The announcement, which came about 30 minutes before a School Board meeting on reopening options, was at odds with the wishes of many area teachers who’ve voiced fear over returning as confirmed COVID-19 cases rise. The board is expected to vote on the matter July 23.
Nearly 300 questions were submitted ahead of the meeting, several of which were read aloud before officials turned the floor over to about 60 people who had attended to weigh in on a series of problems with no perfect solutions.
Among the issues facing the board: “COVID cannot be put into a vacuum,” Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico County health districts, said in an interview Tuesday.
Other “big losses for children if we don’t return to school” include a child’s mental and behavioral state, child abuse and social detachment from adults in their respective schools, Avula said.
“A student’s mental health and increased rate of child abuse are certainly things we are concerned about,” Avula said, adding that most reported cases of child abuse come from teachers, guidance counselors and other school staff.
Held in person with a 250-person limit at Glen Allen High School, Tuesday’s meeting had COVID-19 safety measures in place, including temperature checks, requiring masks and maintaining social distance. All questions were addressed by the respective school board member whose district the question came from.
Monica Hutchinson, whose three teenage boys attend Henrico schools, asked for the school system to ramp up its mental health services for students, especially for Black students, many of whom she said are “living in trauma and fear as parents are front line workers.”
Varina District School Board member Alicia Atkins, fielding a question about day care for families, said conversations are unfolding about day care options for staff and families, including developing partnerships, potential discounts on day care options and other resources.
As of Tuesday morning, there had been 2,925 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 173 deaths within county limits, according to state data.
Teachers, parents and students who want a virtual return made their voices heard ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Henrico Back to School Safely, a grassroots organization held a car rally in Glen Allen High’s parking lot, where most agreed for the first nine weeks back to school to be virtual only.
They wore red T-shirts, held signs and had decorated their cars, all asking for a safe return to school come September. Signs included: “My wife is a teacher and I want her to live!,” Masks for all” and “Are you willing to risk my life?”
Ryan Burgess, a community organizer for the group and a Highlands Springs High social studies teacher, said most group members favor virtual learning but that some would welcome a hybrid model if specific health and safety guidelines are met.
Those guidelines include: masks for all students and staff; six feet of social distancing in the classroom; improved ventilation; cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer provided by the county; additional hand washing stations from those in bathrooms; and increased paid sick leave for staff and teachers.
Superintendent Amy Cashwell said Tuesday night that staff will have up to 80 additional hours of emergency paid leave and on a case-by-case basis will have an opportunity to receive additional paid leave.
Becky Hurst, a Henrico school parent and an organizer with Back to School Safely, said the group formed after a few dozen parents last month attended a joint meeting of the Henrico Board of Supervisors and School Board to advocate for a return to a full, five-day school week.
“I think a lot of people didn’t realize at the time that there was another group pushing for full return,” Hurst said. “I think they were shocked about it.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s events, the group sent a petition to the School Board and Cashwell asking that no vote be taken until staff voices and concerns are heard.
The petition asked several questions regarding the health and safety of students and staff and addressed the school system’s Black and brown families.
With people of color being the most impacted by COVID-19, Back to School Safely said that without a “comprehensive and well thought out” reopening plan, the school system is “risking the safety of our families, especially those that might not be able to afford or receive any type of healthcare.”
In Henrico, Black and Latino residents make up about 62% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to state data. Black residents make up nearly 31% of the county’s population and Latinos 6%, according to July 2019 U.S. census estimates.
Audrina Farrar, a Henrico County teacher who attended the car rally, said she is concerned for the system’s Black and brown children who live in multigenerational households.
Farrar said reopening is not limited to an education issue but, “an issue of systemic inequality, health care and economically [socioeconomic].”
“COVID has really brought up those inequalities; it all builds off of each other,” she added.
Desiree Hopkins, a librarian at Moody Middle School who has two children in the school system, is nervous about students returning.
On the last day of school in March, she said she had to stop students in the hallways from sneezing on each other and saying with a laugh. “Ha ha, now you have coronavirus.”
“How are we going to handle something like that [in the fall]?” Hopkins said.
Last month, during a joint meeting of the Henrico Board of Supervisors and School Board, nearly 50 parents and children in attendance held signs, voicing support for a return to a normal five-day week come September.
Some of the parents advocating for a return to a conventional school week question whether children are susceptible to COVID-19 or are likely to transmit it to teachers or faculty.
Hurst said she and others believe there is not enough data to know. Teacher associations in Richmond and Chesterfield last week said they shouldn’t take the risk, calling for a virtual return to classes in their respective school districts in September.
Staff writer C. Suarez Rojas contributed to this report.