About two-thirds of the state’s public school staff members have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and about 40% are fully vaccinated, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday, as he continued to urge school districts to return to in-person education this spring.
School districts will do so under updated guidance from the state, which adopted some of the recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month and clarified it is parting with the agency on others.
While the CDC recommends social distancing of 6 feet if “feasible,” the state’s guidance will continue to allow districts the flexibility of going down to 3 feet. The Northam administration first allowed this flexibility last summer, and says the change is necessary for some schools to be able to reopen.
The state is also parting with the CDC when it comes to its guidance on extracurricular activities and athletics. The CDC recommends virtual-only extracurricular activities when the risk of transmission is high. The state’s guidance instead says that when the transmission risk is high or substantial, extracurriculars can take place outside with social distancing of 6 feet.
To align with the CDC, the state updated its guidance around how school districts should track the risk of community transmission.
Previously, the state suggested that districts look at a 14-day average of new cases; that guidance was updated to encourage districts to look at the past seven days. Agreeing with the CDC, state officials said looking at a more recent and smaller period of time will ensure districts are reacting quickly to surges and outbreaks.
“We know this is important to our children’s education and also to their well-being. Our children have endured a lot of change and uncertainty in this past year — they have been our champions — but we know it is taking a toll,” Northam said during a briefing with reporters Tuesday. “We’re seeing a decline in academic performance, and we’re seeing increased behavioral problems and mental health issues.
“So I’m glad that our children are getting back into the classroom because that is where they need to be.”
Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said Tuesday that all of the state’s school districts have submitted plans to the state for how they plan to welcome at least some students back into the classroom this academic year.
Lane said the number of school districts offering only virtual learning has decreased from a couple of dozen at the start of the year to fewer than 12.
“By March 15, certainly we’ll have all but maybe one or two school divisions that have their in-person starting,” Lane said. “I think the last school division will start with their in-person learning on April 12, which is immediately after spring break.”
That school district expected to return last to in-person learning for at least some students is Richmond Public Schools. The Chesterfield County and Henrico County school districts have resumed in-person learning for at least four days a week. The Hanover County school system has offered in-person classes since the beginning of the school year.
The state’s Department of Education has published a map outlining the status of all of the state’s school districts. That interactive map can be found at: https://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/health_medical/office/ reopen-status.shtml.
Northam acknowledged Tuesday that there is hesitancy or resistance from some families to return their children to the classroom as the pandemic continues; that herd immunity remains at least months away; and that vaccinations among teachers remain a work in progress.
“We certainly recommend and encourage families to be comfortable with sending their children to school, but we also realize that there are situations with families — perhaps they have elderly individuals living at home, people with special medical needs, and they’re just not comfortable with their kids returning to school,” Northam said. “We understand that, and the schools will continue to provide virtual learning ... until we get to the point where this pandemic is finally in the rearview mirror.”
Northam said reaching herd immunity in Virginia will eventually require vaccinating children.
Right now, none of the three available vaccines in the U.S. have been tested on children, who were not prioritized in vaccine trials given the low number of cases and little evidence of spread among them.
“That leaves a lot of children that still have yet to be vaccinated,” said Northam, adding that trials for safety and efficacy of the vaccines on children won’t be completed until late this year. “The message here is that it’s going to take a while to reach herd immunity, to get both our adults and children vaccinated, which is what our ultimate goal is.”