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Online, in-person or both: Across Virginia, school reopening is the hot-button issue of the summer
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Online, in-person or both: Across Virginia, school reopening is the hot-button issue of the summer

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Jenna Russell wants to send her children back to school.

The three months of virtual learning at the end of the 2019-20 school year, a transition forced by the state-mandated school closures to slow the spread of COVID-19, were a struggle for her Henrico County family. Her son, a rising third-grader, has attention deficit disorder and it was hard for him to focus during the Zoom meetings held by Holladay Elementary School staff.

“You can see other students and he was easily distracted by what they were doing and their setting. It was hard for him to get a word in without the structure of physically raising his hand to speak,” she said.

Russell and her husband work full time outside the home but managed the school closures thanks to help from a not-so-technically-inclined grandmother. She worries they won’t be able to do the same this fall, with the likelihood that schools will not open in person, five days a week as they normally do, which Russell, the mother of a rising kindergartner as well, wants to happen.

“Trying to navigate a hybrid schedule and ensuring virtual instruction is done right for my children while working full time seems daunting,” said Russell, adding that she respects the opinion of teachers and parents who are not ready to return.

These are the conversations playing out across Virginia, as school officials, teachers and parents weigh how and when to reopen school buildings with the coronavirus pandemic continuing to ravage the state.

The debate has become increasingly political, with Virginia Republicans and Democrats accusing each other of “playing politics” and the Trump administration pushing for reopening as normal. Local teachers union chapters have mobilized to push for virtual learning, while many parents, like Russell, are calling for five days a week, in-person schooling.

There’s a craving for normalcy, with backpack-wearing students walking into school buildings ready for a new school year. It’s also a matter of public health, with so much still unknown about COVID-19 and its transmission. There’s no clear consensus as to whether children can infect adults. The virus has killed more than 2,000 Virginians, none of them younger than 20 years old, according to state data.

Yet 1 in 4 teachers is at a higher risk of serious illness if they’re infected with the novel coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“We believe that we need to keep everyone safe — from the kindergartner who may have a little trouble keeping his hands to himself to the 62-year-old teacher with a chronic disease that has weakened her immune system,” the Virginia Education Association said in a statement.

“We believe that the timetable for returning to in-person instruction must follow the establishment and successful verification of all precautions, procedures, supporting equipment, and other essentials required to maintain safe environments. We must take the time to do it right.”

Time is running thin for school districts to make their reopening plans.

Virginia schools would normally reopen starting next month, with that standard almost assumed when Gov. Ralph Northam ordered school buildings to close for the rest of the academic year in mid-March.

But the virus continues to spread in Virginia and elsewhere, with Northam announcing last week that the state is stepping up its enforcement of coronavirus-related restrictions.

He has left the decision on reopening schools to local school boards, which have been flooded with feedback from parents and educators in recent weeks as they consider their options. Most are deciding between a normal in-person reopening, a hybrid approach with some instruction in person and some online, and an increasingly popular all-virtual option, which is how schools across the state finished the 2019-20 school year.

“I know these are not easy decisions,” Northam said Tuesday. “They’re not easy choices for our parents, our families, teachers or school administrators as they all work to balance what’s best for students’ education with what’s best for the health of students, teachers, faculty, staff and families.”

He added: “We all want to be comfortable sending children back to school and we also want teachers and support staff to feel safe going back to work.”

The Northam administration released initial reopening guidelines in June that outlined how schools in the state can bring students back, with potential mask-wearing and daily health screenings for staff, among other things. Similar to the state’s economic recovery efforts, schools would reopen in phases, according to the guidance.

Virginia remains in Phase Three of its reopening, a stage that allows for in-person instruction for all students. The state updated its guidance this month to say that students can be as close as 3 feet apart if they wear face masks and are not showing symptoms of the virus, a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While schools are allowed to reopen under the current phase, more than 10,500 people have signed an online petition to reopen schools “only when it’s safe” with extensive testing for students and staff, along with contact tracing programs for schools, among other things.

With the invisible deadline for school reopening decisions approaching, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other Lee Enterprises newspapers looked at how these conversations are playing out on the ground across Virginia. This is what school officials around the state have decided or are considering.

Richmond area

Gregory Muzik, the principal at Mary Munford Elementary School in Richmond, had gone back and forth on how to reopen Richmond Public Schools. At first, he supported a hybrid option where students would attend school in person for two days a week, and do virtual learning three days a week. Then, after a computer distribution at the elementary school, he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I likely got it during the school computer distribution, as did at least one teacher,” he said during public comment at a July 14 School Board meeting. “We all wore masks, gloves and were socially distanced.”

His only symptom was a mild cough that he had for a few days. His wife, however, ended up hospitalized for two weeks in critical condition. She’s still recovering, two months after contracting the virus.

“She is recovering, but recovery from COVID is slow. This is a dangerous disease,” Muzik said.

His support turned to a virtual-only option for the fall semester, which the Richmond School Board ended up adopting with an endorsement from Superintendent Jason Kamras.

The 8-1 vote came after an overwhelming push from teachers. Two teachers started a petition that demanded the board not vote on July 9, when it was originally scheduled to decide on fall plans. The Richmond Education Association, the local teachers union, called for 100% virtual learning in a letter to the board. Then teacher unions across the region followed suit.

In Chesterfield County, the teachers union has asked the School Board to vote for an all-virtual option. It will vote on Monday.

“It is unsafe for people to gather in large groups at any location,” county teachers said in a statement. “It is particularly unsafe to do so in Chesterfield County Public School facilities where we have poor air quality systems and overcrowded classrooms.”

In Hanover County, some teachers have called on the county School Board to move to virtual-only school. The board last week approved a plan that gives Hanover families the option to continue online learning or return to schools five days a week.

In Henrico, the School Board is exploring a hybrid option that allows for two days of in-person instruction, the remaining three days virtual. It is also exploring a fully in-person plan for the district’s roughly 50,000 students. Families can opt out of any sort of in-person instruction for both options.

The board plans to vote Thursday.

Northern Virginia

While school reopening has been a hot-button issue in every locality, no Virginia school system has faced more scrutiny this year than Fairfax County Public Schools.

The district, which educates 14.6% of all Virginia public school students, stumbled in its transition to virtual learning at the outset of the closures and the Trump administration publicly criticized its reopening plan earlier this month.

That plan offers families the choice of 100% virtual learning or a hybrid option, where students come to school at least two days a week. President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have pushed for a full reopening.

David Walrod, a math and special education teacher in the district, said he hopes the district goes completely virtual “where we really take the time to make virtual work.”

“At the same time, I respect that there are a lot of parents who feel just as strongly about there being an in-person option,” Walrod said. “There are no options that will make everybody happy.”

Parents and teachers had until Wednesday to choose between the two options.

In Arlington County, the school system scrapped a plan that gave parents the choice of a hybrid model or fully virtual. Instead, county schools chief Francisco Durán said last week that the district will open fully virtual to start the year.

“We will continue to monitor health data in September, with the goal of beginning to transition some students to in-person instruction in early October, which is the midpoint in the first quarter of the school year,” Durán told Arlington families. “Our goal is to have hybrid in-person instruction in place for all families that have selected that model by the beginning of the second quarter, based on health data and in consultation with health officials.”

The state’s second-largest school system, Prince William County Public Schools, will have most students learn virtually to start the school year, with some special education students and English learners going to school in person starting Sept. 8.

Hampton Roads

Kathleen Slinde’s 20 years of teaching have been in elementary school. Second-grade students, in the grade level she now teaches in Virginia Beach, are not exactly set up for remote learning.

Slinde spent much of the last three months of the school year talking to families about how to get technology working and trying to get her students to interact with one another at least once a week.

While they struggle with technology, Slinde also worries about how they would act if they were to return in person this fall, with COVID-19 recommendations like socially distancing not exactly easy for young children.

“Second-graders, God bless ’em, they are wonderful. I love them. But they cannot social distance,” Slinde said.

She has been stressed over the past few months as school officials have debated reopening, unsure of whether they will bring educators like her back in person, which she does not support.

“It almost implies that teachers are expendable,” Slinde said. “I have colleagues who have diabetes. I have colleagues who have families with extreme health risks that nobody would know. To say that that person needs to come back to the classroom and put their health at risk is unreasonable.”

Virginia Beach Public Schools, the fourth-largest district in the state, has three options on the table: reopening “as close to what we think of as normal”; alternating in-person days; and remote learning only. In the first two scenarios, parents can opt their children out of in-person learning.

In Norfolk, the city School Board, which meets remotely, is leaning toward a fully virtual start to the school year, which educators there have called for.

“If it’s not safe for our School Board to meet face to face and they have to do their meetings via Zoom, how is it safe for me to work face to face with my kids?” said Amy Garcia, a fifth-grade teacher in the district.

The Chesapeake School Board is deciding between 100% remote learning and an option that depends on COVID-19 infection rates. If rates are low, for example, students would return to school normally. If they’re high, the school year would start online. If they’re somewhere in the middle, the district would take a hybrid approach.

“Our goal is to bring all students back to school, and it is our hope that the COVID-19 situation will improve allowing us to return to normal operations,” the school system said. “Until that time, a great deal of uncertainty remains.”

Charlottesville

In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, teachers are pushing school leaders to opt for an online-only start to the school year, citing concerns about student learning, their own health and the welfare of the broader community.

“I have my own children and I cherish them like all parents do, and I just wasn’t willing for them to be guinea pigs,” said Vicki Hobson, an instructional coach in Albemarle who helped write an open letter to district leadership last week urging them to offer all-virtual classes.

Both school systems have proposed similar options for classes in the coming school year, with the first day of school less than two months away. One plan would send elementary students to in-person classes four days a week while middle and high schoolers would go to class either once or twice a week.

Concerned about the development and social-emotional well-being of their children, some Charlottesville parents have urged the district to offer a full five-day week for elementary students. Other parents have said they are worried about the safety of returning to in-person classes.

Neither school board has signaled clear support for any option. Both districts also are working to draft plans for all-virtual instruction and surveying parents and employees.

Teachers have said planning for all-virtual classes now would give the schools time to improve the online offerings. Any of the proposed plans along with the reality of positive cases temporarily closing schools means virtual learning will be a key component for students regardless of whether there are in-person classes.

In surveys, parents have said the online options rolled out quickly in the spring did not work well for their students. Officials have pledged to make changes for fall classes.

Complicating all reopening plans is the return of University of Virginia students next month, which some officials worry will put the community at greater risk and lead to rapid community spread of the virus.

Roanoke

Schools in the Roanoke and New River valleys have largely taken a similar approach to reopening schools, but some districts have become outliers. The majority of districts have planned some form of hybrid in-person model, and all will offer a 100% virtual option for families that request it.

Roanoke City Public Schools’ proposed plan is the boldest in the region: Students of all grades will start the school year in the classroom four full days per week, with a virtual day on Friday. Superintendent Verletta White praised the plan for giving families and teachers choices, although some parents criticized the plan, saying they believed a hybrid option would entail fewer in-person days.

The plan comes with fine print: It’s contingent on enough students — 30% — opting for fully virtual learning. An initial survey that found 31% of students would opt for remote learning, but only 60% of the district’s enrollment responded. The School Board plans to vote on the proposal in early August.

Roanoke County, Salem and Franklin County each approved plans to send pre-K through second-grade students to the classroom five days per week. But the Franklin County School Board, wary of a potential spike in COVID-19 cases, approved keeping the older grades fully virtual, at least for the start of the school year. In contrast, Roanoke County and Salem plan to send third through 12th grades to the classroom two days per week.

The Roanoke County School Board spent nearly a month debating whether more students could go back to the classroom before ultimately unanimously approving the proposed plan.

Discussion at times turned contentious.

Board member Don Butzer, who supported the original plan from the start, resigned his chairmanship in early July because he believed politics had entered the fray and that he’d lost the board’s confidence.

A committee of parents and teachers calling themselves “Reopen Roanoke County Schools” pressured the board to allow students the option to go back to school five days, a statewide trend spurred from a Facebook group called “VA Back2School.”

And teachers from the Roanoke County Education Association eventually called for a fully virtual reopening after initially backing the proposed plan.

In the end, all five board members voted yes to the original plan, though they pledged to continue work to expand it as soon as possible.

Pulaski County plans to send students to school four days per week by the end of September, adding days each week. Most students will start the school year on Sept. 8, going to the classroom one day per week, then two days the next week, and then four days.

The exception is middle school students, who will be fully virtual until their new building is completed in mid-September.

Botetourt County and Radford, the latter of which still has to approve a plan, intend to send students of all grades to the classroom two days per week. Montgomery County will send students to the classroom four half-days per week.

Lynchburg

Lynchburg-area school systems plan to reopen in the fall with at least some students receiving in-person instruction.

Lynchburg City Schools administrators hope to have the division’s youngest students in school buildings two days per week when school reopens in August, and all students receiving in-person instruction by September.

When school resumes on Aug. 24 — seven school days later than the originally scheduled return date of Aug. 12 — students in pre-K through fifth grade will attend school in person two days a week and learn through online/at-home instruction the remaining days.

By September, the district hopes to have all students learning in person two days a week.

Appomattox County Public Schools is also prioritizing its youngest students, with pre-K through fifth-grade students attending school in person four days a week. Middle and high schoolers will be split into two groups and attend in-person school twice a week and learn remotely the other days.

Appomattox Superintendent Annette Bennett called the plan the “best-case scenario.”

“Our goal was to open in the fall of 2020 to as many students as possible, as often as possible and as safely as possible,” she said.

Bedford County Public Schools plans to have its oldest students — seventh-graders, eighth-graders and high schoolers — receive primarily virtual instruction in the fall. Each student will be connected to a “learning coach” who will support them as they complete their classwork from home. They’ll be able to schedule time to meet with teachers in personal or small group sessions as necessary.

Bedford’s younger students will receive daily face-to-face instruction, with the number of students to a class reduced to achieve physical distancing requirements.

Amherst County Public Schools plans to have its elementary students in schools Monday through Thursday in two groups. According to the proposed plan, middle and high schoolers in the division will spend two days a week in schools and learn from home on the remaining days. The School Board is set to vote on the county’s plan at its meeting Monday.

All Lynchburg-area divisions are offering a completely remote learning option for students who are uncomfortable with or unable to return to school buildings.

Campbell County Public Schools plans to present its reopening plan at its Monday School Board meeting. Nelson County Public Schools has not released an official reopening plan.

Bristol

More than 60 people developed the “Recover, Reimagine, Return” plan in Bristol, which calls for students to begin attending classes on Aug. 20. The district superintendent, Keith Perrigan, wearing a cloth mask, announced the plan Thursday during a news conference.

Under the plan, students will be allowed to attend classes in person or remotely if they have health issues or their families have concerns. In-person classes will occur Mondays through Thursdays, with online instruction scheduled on Fridays.

Staff and students 10 years and older are encouraged to wear masks, Perrigan said. The district will provide at least one face covering for each student and staff member, the plan states. Social distancing will also be in place in the classroom and on the bus.

Bristol’s goal is to provide a safe learning environment for every student and staff member, Perrigan said.

If Northam returns Virginia to its second reopening phase, rather than the current third phase, Perrigan said all learning would take place remotely. The School Board will vote on the plan on Aug. 3.

Washington County schools plan to reopen on Aug. 10. Students will be divided into two cohorts. Cohort “A” allows in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Cohort “B” attends in person on Thursdays and Fridays. The cohorts would then participate in remote learning when they are not in school, the district said. Schools will notify families regarding which cohort students are assigned.

Wednesdays in the county are designed for specific tutoring, remediation, review and catch-up, collaborative planning and deep cleaning.

“We are excited to reopen schools with some in-person learning for all students and are very hopeful to expand the in-person learning experience as soon as we can,” the district said in a statement. “As always, circumstances and plans remain fluid and are subject to change prior to the opening of school.”

Other Southwest Virginia districts, such as Wise County, are also planning hybrid schedules involving in-person and remote learning

Beth Stockner has been closely following Washington County’s reopening plans.

“As the mom of three girls, I feel the safety of our children to be a major concern,” Stockner said. “The continuance of the school resource officers, proper cleaning of the schools between groups and social distancing are going to be big factors in keeping kids safe in the fall.”

Stockner said interaction with teachers and other students is one of the biggest “untold benefits” of the public school system.

“No one is going to be totally happy with any decision; however, we feel the hybrid system is the best compromise during a difficult time,” Stockner said.

Martinsville

Martinsville City Public Schools issued a notice Friday afternoon that the opening of the school year now will be totally by remote learning for students, backpedaling from the plan the School Board had approved on Monday night.

That plan, labeled as Phase 3, had called for a hybrid approach of remote and face-to-face learning. The surprise arrived late Friday afternoon in a one-paragraph email from MCPS spokesman Parker Gunn.

The release did not explain when the change was made or how the decision was reached.

“Monday night our approval of the plan gave [Superintendent] Dr. [Zeb] Talley the authority to make changes as needed, when needed, at his discretion,” MCPS Board Chair Donna Dillard said Friday night.

Talley had presented a painstaking, 135-page proposal that involved schedules under three detailed phases and then announced as of Monday that schools would operate under Phase 3. He did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Friday.

The proposal included mostly in-classroom learning by the lower grades and mostly remote learning for the higher grades, and it was a departure from the Phase 1 plan that Talley had announced just a few days before.

Now, all classes will have remote learning when school resumes on Aug. 10.

“Please emphasize that our priority is the safety of our students, staff and teachers,” Dillard said. “That is our main concern.”

The release from MCPS did explain the change is a result of “a sharp increase in cases of COVID-19 in Martinsville, Henry County and the nation.” Both the city and county have seen active cases and hospitalizations increase significantly since June 30, up by 50% in the county alone.

MCPS was not alone in making a last-minute change after publicly announcing plans.

Patrick County Schools had announced and posted on its website a hybrid learning plan for the reopening of its school district, but a “push alert” to parents and concerned citizens early Friday afternoon rescinded that notification and announced a hastily scheduled meeting of its School Board at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Patrick County High School auditorium.

“The board members will continue discussing reopening plans for the 2020-2021 school year,” the announcement stated. “The school board is interested in receiving input from parents and staff regarding the hybrid plan option and the number of days students would receive in-person instruction beginning Aug. 11. Board members may be emailed at board@patrick.k12.va.us.”

The Henry County school district remained silent on the matter through Friday. Its website still held fast to a hybrid system it had announced and its board approved two weeks ago.

Not one size fits all

Brittany Stover bought a new laptop for herself a few months ago, an Apple MacBook that her children were not supposed to touch. She sees that changing.

Stover has three school-age children, a first-grader and two in high school. They struggled with virtual learning to close out the most recent school year, with, in Stover’s words, “no actual work” given and only a website to practice reading and math.

She tried to convince the Fauquier County School Board to let parents decide between 100% virtual or 100% in-person learning come the fall. The board voted last week for a hybrid approach.

“‘Now I’m doing what I usually do and going clothes shopping and will soon start filling their supply lists, because that’s all I can do at the moment,” Stover said. “I have no idea how this schedule is going to go, and what I as a parent will need to do for my children.”

With a mix of online and in-person learning, her children, and thousands of others across the state, will embark this fall on an unprecedented school year.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Kenya Hunter of the Richmond Times-Dispatch; Katherine Knott of The Daily Progress; Claire Mitzel of The Roanoke Times; Jamey Cross, Justin Faulconer and Nick Cropper of The News & Advance; Robert Sorrell of the Bristol Herald Courier; and Bill Wyatt of the Martinsville Bulletin contributed to this report.

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