Emily Stanford, 43, was burned out when she resigned from the Hanover County school system three years ago.
A teacher-turned-administrator, Stanford said the demands of supporting the county’s special education programs became too much while she was raising a young son and caring for an ailing grandfather with Alzheimer’s. She became a real estate agent and a part-time consultant for families and school districts on special education issues.
But the COVID-19 pandemic put her back in a teaching role last spring, as her son, two nieces and a nephew also in the school district finished out the academic year in her home.
Hanover County let families choose whether to send their children back to school next month. As a result, about two in five of the county’s 17,137 students will continue online learning this fall. Stanford and other parents who chose the online experience for safety are concerned their children will fall behind those who attend classes in person after seeing schools struggle to adapt in the spring.
“Choice implies you have two equal opportunities,” Stanford said. “In this case, they are not equal opportunities.”
The deadline to decide was July 31. Fewer families chose the in-person learning than anticipated. Earlier this summer, about 75% of families responding to a school division survey said they were likely to send their kids back if the option were available. Even more families, about 90% in all, said they would do so if a hybrid option were available.
As part of the county’s health safety plan, which was developed with guidance from local, state and national health agencies, everyone in school buildings and vehicles will be required to wear a mask and attempt to maintain at least 3 feet of distance from other people.
In a town hall meeting at the end of July, Superintendent Michael Gill sought to reassure families of the school division’s decision, saying that the plans remain subject to change, even after the school year begins.
“There is no perfect plan at a perfect time that is perfect for all families, and so it is a delicate balance between meeting the needs of our many stakeholder groups and being responsive,” he said. “We firmly believe that education is an essential pillar for our community.”
School Board Chairman John Axselle did not respond to requests for comment last week.
Stanford, whose son is a rising fourth-grader, said she understands why some parents want schools to reopen, but she thinks the school system has not done enough to assure parents that all students will be on equal footing.
She and others said there’s lingering questions about homes without computers and limited or no internet access; child care options for working parents; meals for students who rely on the schools for breakfast and lunch; and special accommodations for students with special needs.
“It is a complex situation. I had more faith in them to think this through,” Stanford said. “They could have been preparing teachers all summer long for virtual instruction.”
But for the parents who want their kids back in school, there’s a concern that keeping them out could lead to developmental delays. Parents advocating for either option have also noted that the situation is likely to widen racial and socioeconomic education gaps.
It’s a conundrum either way, as low-income families and people of color are often at higher risk of contracting the virus because of underlying health conditions and roles in essential front-line jobs.
For parents of high school students, uncertainty about the availability of advanced placement, technical education, performing arts and other hands-on courses in Hanover’s online education plans has also raised concerns about their futures.
“No one can answer us, and we’re starting school in a month,” said Julie Stubblefield, the mother of a rising high school junior. “They normally start signing up for classes for next year in December. So we’ve been talking about it for eight months. Now, we need to start all over because they insist on going this way.”
Hanover is one of the few localities in the Richmond area offering parents a choice. The Colonial Heights school system is following a similar plan to Hanover.
But as cases of COVID-19 were beginning to rise again across Virginia last month, the school districts for Richmond, Hopewell, Petersburg and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico decided to start the year online — either for the first nine weeks or through the first semester.
Some of the school districts that are planning for a virtual reopening are tentatively planning to bring a limited number of students, such as English language learners and special needs students, to support families and provide the specialized services their students need.
As in other districts, teachers have also raised concerns. Both the Hanover Education Association and Hanover Professional Educators, organizations that represent the county’s teachers, issued a joint statement last month asking the School Board to adopt an online-only plan for the first nine weeks of the school year instead.
“There is genuine fear and valid concern that any employee exposed to large numbers of students (who will almost certainly not be 100% compliant with COVID-19 safety protocols) runs the very real risk of contracting COVID-19,” the statement reads. “As we have seen repeatedly, that can have devastating and long-lasting effects even on otherwise healthy people.”
Besides concerns about the potential spread of the virus, some parents are concerned that the school district will not be able to provide adequate accommodations to special needs students.
Rachel Levy, the mother of three Hanover students and a teacher in Caroline County, said she thinks more families would have opted out of returning to school in person if schools had presented more detailed preliminary online learning plans. She is also advocating for Hanover to start the year online to buy more time to develop a more comprehensive reopening strategy.
“Other school districts with similar challenges are taking that approach, so it can be done,” Levy said.
The school division is still working to find ways to offer advanced courses online and provide special accommodations. Spokesman Chris Whitley said some special classes may not be immediately available when the year begins.
“We are working diligently to make sure the same options are available to our online school students as our in-person students,” he said. “Certain hands-on electives — mostly CTE [career and technical education] courses — will not be offered, but we will look at summer programs to help students to recapture instruction that they will be unable to complete in a virtual setting.”
Whitley said the school division is also striving to purchase laptops for all online students, but acknowledged that there could be some delay in getting those out.
“The [Virginia Department of Education] and our vendors have made us aware of supply chain issues due to high demand and disruptions to the labor force due to COVID. However, we anticipate the first devices arriving this month,” he said.
Mackenzie Babichenko, an attorney and the mother of a rising second-grader in the Hanover school system, said she relied on her daughter’s day care to help facilitate schoolwork through spring because she and her husband had to continue reporting to work during the pandemic. Having her daughter’s return to school next month brings a sense of relief, she said.
“Yes, there’s certainly a safety component. But I’m far more worried about whether my child will fall behind in socialization and long-term consequences of when our kids are staying at home, staring at screens all day,” she said. “There are a lot of people in a lot worse situations than we are. But I will tell you the decision was easy for us because we don’t have a choice. We’re both working.”
Stanford said she does not want the debate over school reopening to be simplified as a black-and-white issue, knowing that it’s better in most cases for students to be in school with teachers.
But with the potential risk of infections and few answers from the school district about what will be available virtually, she said concerns need to be raised.
Though she’s uncomfortable with the idea, she said some parents are talking to her about potential civil rights complaints or lawsuits if the school system does not provide adequate services as required under federal law. She said it may well be warranted.
“It makes me sick to my stomach thinking about it,” she said. “There’s still time to stop this.”
The Hanover School Board will hold a virtual meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Classes are scheduled to begin Sept. 8.