Push has come to shove for Virginia’s school districts that remain fully virtual, as Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday that they must begin to offer in-person learning by March 15.
In a letter to the state’s school superintendents, Northam wrote: “To prevent irreparable learning loss and psychological damage, I expect every school division in the Commonwealth to make in-person learning options available by March 15, 2021, in accordance with the latest guidance.”
About two-thirds of Virginia’s 132 school districts are offering some form of in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic, including phased approaches that prioritize the youngest students. An additional 40 school systems, including Richmond’s, offer no in-person options, according to the state’s tally.
School districts that aren’t offering in-person instruction have seen a large drop in enrollment, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. About 45,000 students have left since Virginia’s public schools were shuttered last March.
“This needs to change, even if the decision is difficult,” Northam said at a news conference Friday.
Northam is not urging all students to return by that date, but says school districts can begin with the students who “need in-person learning the most,” pointing to students with disabilities, English-language learners, and children in preschool through third grade.
“But plans for in-person learning cannot and should not extend only to these students, and you must begin planning now for the eventual safe return of all students for in-person learning,” the governor said.
He said school systems can make decisions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as schools reopen, including canceling high-risk activities like indoor sports. In his letter, the governor said the state can also further restrict indoor dining when COVID-19 incidence is high, something he declined to do during the holiday-time surge.
The Northam administration leaned heavily on new guidance and statements from the federal government. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that in-person learning has not resulted in high incidences of COVID-19 in schools, and the CDC’s director, Rochelle Walensky, said this week that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”
The prospect of reopening schools has caused heated debate across the country, with many educators arguing that vaccinations should come first. After delayed rollouts in some of Virginia’s school systems, it’s unclear when all educators will be vaccinated.
In some districts, such as Richmond’s, many Black and Latino families have expressed reluctance to send children back into school buildings while COVID-19 continues to spread and disproportionately affect people of color.
When Richmond Public Schools surveyed families on second-semester options for returning to school buildings, families of color largely said they had no plans to send their own kids back to school. The district’s teachers, most of whom are Black, said they did not feel comfortable returning.
In December, the Richmond School Board voted to remain virtual for the rest of the year, making the district the only one in the Richmond area to do so. Henrico County students will begin returning to classrooms in waves on Feb. 22, and Chesterfield County students began trickling back Monday. Hanover County has had students in buildings all school year.
“I don’t know exactly what this means for RPS just yet, as we’re still receiving and processing all the details,” Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said in a statement Friday. “I promise to follow up early next week once the School Board and I have had a chance to review everything.”
Northam said he had spoken with school superintendents Friday morning, adding that they had an “open” and “frank” conversation about his expectation for schools to reopen. On the call, superintendents heard from Atif Qarni, Virginia’s secretary of education, and James Lane, the state’s superintendent of education.
Northam could mandate that schools reopen by signing an executive order, as he did last March to close schools, but he has not done so. Jonathan Young, who has been the lone supporter on the Richmond School Board for students to return to buildings, said that he appreciates Northam’s announcement.
“I am grateful to the governor for rightly recognizing that exclusively virtual [learning] has compounded problems and that it is time to get back in the buildings,” he said.
Meanwhile, fellow Richmond School Board member Kenya Gibson said she found herself frustrated.
“Virginia just announced a critical shortage of vaccines, amidst a new variant of COVID that is more communicable by 30%-50%,” she said in a statement. “The risk to our health and even life is real ... I’m optimistic that a safe return is near, but now is not the moment to pressure local governing bodies to prematurely force students and staff back into the classroom.”
Northam said Friday that he understands that families of color might be hesitant to send their students back to school, given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic.
“We understand that people have anxieties and legitimate reasons for being concerned,” said the governor, noting similar hesitation regarding vaccinations and COVID-19 testing among Virginians of color.
But he added: “At the same time, we need to move toward getting our children back in school, and we’re going to do it as safely and responsibly and as equitably as we can.”
The Virginia Senate has passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, that requires districts to offer an in-person option. When the General Assembly first convened last month, Dunnavant, along with Sens. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, said that if the bill did not pass, they would refuse to vote for the state budget. The fate of the bill in the House of Delegates is unclear.
While Dunnavant, a physician, supports in-person learning, she said she would like Northam to be more clear on the directive to school boards and superintendents. She also wants to see more conversation about five-day-a-week instruction.
“I think we really need strong leadership to assert that in-person is truly in-person,” she said in an interview.
“I’ve had so many moms reach out and tell me that they are frustrated because the in-person [learning] they’ve got is the kids going to school, opening their computers at their desks, and doing virtual instruction with a proctor in the room. ... That’s not really what we’re looking at to offset the failure rates and academic losses that we’ve been able to document thus far, and are probably far worse than what we’ve already documented.”
In a December poll conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University, an increased number of Virginians said it was safe for students to return to in-person learning. But the numbers varied by race, with only 37% of non-white populations deeming it safe for students to return to the classroom.