Annual live shooter drills always made David Chung imagine how he might need to take a bullet for his students. He says he’d be ready to do it in a heartbeat, but now he’s afraid of the harm he could cause teaching them face-to-face.
“I’m being asked to host the virus and spread it around my students,” he said, speaking hypothetically at a protest outside the Hanover County School Board’s office Wednesday. “We don’t know the long-term effects of this virus. Now we’re expecting students to take part in this live science experiment. It’s crazy.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic shows little sign of abating, two Richmond-area school districts are starting the upcoming school year online. But Hanover, for now, remains committed to letting families choose between virtual learning or reverting back to a normal schedule when the academic year begins Sept. 8.
Organized by a grassroots coalition of Hanover teachers and parents, the protest Wednesday featured a caravan of more than 50 vehicles decorated with protest signs and messages decrying the School Board’s recent endorsement of a five-day reopening plan.
Since the outset of the pandemic in March, the Virginia Department of Health has tallied 531 total cases and 31 deaths in Hanover. In an interview last week, Dr. Thomas Franck, director of the regional Chickahominy Health District, said there are fewer than 10 new cases each day but that the school division must be flexible in case conditions worsen.
Though not as hard-hit as Richmond and the larger suburban counties of Chesterfield and Henrico, some Hanover parents and teachers worry that reopening schools could be disastrous.
After getting organized at Henry Clay Elementary School early Wednesday morning, a fleet of protest cars drove to the county School Board office blasting their horns along the way. After several vehicles looped around the school building, keeping the noise level high for about 15 minutes, a school official came outside and asked the drivers to stop disrupting their work day.
“Protect the teachers, and we’ll leave you alone,” said Julie Stubblefield, the mother of a county high school student who helped organize the protest.
Chris Whitley, the spokesman for the school division, said the protesters were not permitted onto school property Wednesday because there was no formal request to hold a demonstration there.
“We respect the right of the people to peaceably assemble. The health, safety, and well-being of our students, teachers and staff remains a top priority in our planning,” he said. “We will continue to solicit and evaluate feedback from all stakeholders, as well as continuously review all official guidance that we receive.”
The school division’s “Return to Learn” plan adopted last week is the product of recommendations from a task force that included teachers, school officials, students and community members. A survey conducted earlier this summer also found that more than three-fourths of respondents would be likely to send their kids back to school in September if the option were available.
While the plan gives families a choice between online-only or in-person instruction, the school district is asking them to commit to a decision through the first half of the year.
“I feel Hanover County needs to be focusing all their resources in one direction,” said Micheline Plaskett, a retired Hanover school librarian and grandparent of an elementary-level student in the school system. “By offering two choices, they’re confusing an already very complicated situation.”
Some teachers and parents at Wednesday’s protest said they also feel the task force did not give enough consideration to concerns that have been raised about the safety of students and school employees.
Rachel Levy, the mother of three students in the school system and a teacher in Caroline County, said the school division’s survey was flawed and that some members of the division task force did not discuss whether schools should return to a normal weekly schedule.
She also took exception to how the school division did not publicly share its plan until the vote last week.
“They proposed it and approved it the same night,” she said. “No one had any chance to give any input on it.”
In a statement released last week and again on Wednesday, spokesman Whitley said the reopening plan remains subject to change.
School Board Chairman John Axselle could not be reached for comment Wednesday.