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Richmond area parents, teachers and school officials look to start of school year as COVID-19 spread continues
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Richmond area parents, teachers and school officials look to start of school year as COVID-19 spread continues

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With Richmond Public Schools and other school districts set to reopen next month, parents and caregivers are feeling mixed emotions about their students going back.

At a school supply drive at The Diamond baseball stadium on Wednesday, volunteers, donors and members of the Richmond School Board said they are eager to resume in-person instruction after two school years have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recent rise of the highly transmissible delta variant, however, has tempered some excitement as schools in the area that started early have temporarily closed or sent dozens of students home to quarantine.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” said Dawn Page, who represents Richmond’s 8th District on the School Board. “Families and staff want to know they’re returning to a safe place.”

Richmond schools remained closed all through last year, forcing families to adjust their lives around virtual learning schedules at home or elsewhere in most cases.

While some families are eager for a return to relative normalcy, 53 students at the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in South Richmond had to quarantine after four positive COVID-19 cases were confirmed among students. The Hopewell City Public Schools system last week also closed schools and cancelled virtual classes last Friday after COVID-related absences led to “critical staffing shortages.”

Patricia Wilson, a grandmother of five children in Richmond schools who volunteered Wednesday to help pack donations at the division’s annual Ultimate Backpack Supply Drive, said she’s glad that they will be returning to a structured classroom setting. At the same time, she said, she worries about their safety.

“They eat all day long and play games. Half of the time they were playing games instead of listening to the teachers. This year they’ll be back in the class so they can learn,” Wilson said. “The part that worries me is you don’t know what kid may have COVID. ... It’s a little frightening.”

Other school districts in the area last year let students choose virtual learning, but allowed students to return to school on a hybrid, part-time schedule or five days a week.

A new law adopted by state lawmakers earlier this year requires that all school districts provide five days of in-person learning. The law also restricts schools from closing unless there is severe outbreak of the virus.

The Richmond school division allowed a limited number of families to sign up for virtual instruction this year. More than two months after a June 1 deadline for families to select that option, some concerned parents and caregivers have reached out to school officials asking if they can switch back to virtual learning.

“Unfortunately we just don’t have the capacity to accommodate,” 9th District School Board representative Nicole Jones said of families that recently sought a change. “That makes it even more of a priority to make sure that all children can return to a safe environment.”

The School Board earlier this month voted to require that all school division employees get vaccinated against the virus by Oct. 1. The division also recently released a 17-page guidebook outlining safety mitigation strategies and protocols developed in coordination with local health officials for the upcoming year. In addition to requiring vaccinations for employees and mask-wearing in all school facilities, the school is still emphasizing frequent hand-washing, physical distancing, screening for symptoms and regular testing for the virus.

Rebecca Wright, the parent of a Henrico County school teacher who donated supplies to the city schools drive on Wednesday, said she’s glad that the Henrico school division has adopted similar safety measures, but is concerned that the virus can still spread among children under 12 who are not eligible for the vaccine.

“She’s going to need to be careful since she’s teaching fifth grade, so she’s dealing with 10-year-olds,” Wright said of her daughter. “Sometimes they need a hug. You can’t just sit them behind a plexiglass barrier and tell them to learn.”

Kylie Robbins volunteered with two of her three children who attend Hanover County Public Schools at Wednesday’s supply drive. Robbins said she was grateful that Hanover allowed her to send her kids back to school five days a week last year. After contracting the virus last year, however, she said she was worried when the Hanover School Board earlier this summer had voted to not require masks in schools. She said she considered moving her children to virtual instruction before Gov. Ralph Northam earlier this month announced a masks order for schools.

“I thought it was a no-brainer,” she said. “I was shocked.”

While she and her family have already tested positive once, she said she’s unsure whether they could become sick again or transmit the virus to others. The masks and other precautionary measures, she said, should also remind people to be mindful of the virus as they navigate through the uncertainty of a third school year in a global pandemic.

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