By Brandon Jarvis

As we inch towards September, the status of public schools has left a lot of Virginians in limbo as leaders try and navigate the unknown of a global pandemic. Governor Northam has said that it will be up to the individual localities to decide – but so far, school districts in Virginia have largely punted on finalizing a reopening plan. 

 Northam says he wants schools to reopen but he emphasized that doing it safely is a high priority for him. His office released guidance for school districts in June with different phases of reopening. Districts will have discretion on how to operationalize within each phase and may choose to offer more limited in-person options than the phase allows if local public health conditions necessitate.

A screenshot from the recent guidance document.

Additional guidance information released this week includes:

  •  Large group gathering limit of 250 individuals.
  • Continued limitations on school athletics (VHSL Phase 3 guidance is forthcoming). 
  • Further clarifications on masks and physical distancing which includes 6 feet of distance when possible, but an absolute minimum of 3 feet. 

Republican members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates held a press conference on Wednesday asking the Governor to withdraw his current reopening guidelines. Senator Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico started the conference by asking the governor to give Virginians a “roadmap” that helps schools reopen with five-day learning for all students as an option. 

Dunnavant, the only medical doctor in the Virginia state Senate, said that science has convinced her that students should be back in schools this fall. “Our state needs to start making decisions that are in the best interest of Virginia’s children and their future,” said Dunnavant. “The updated Virginia guidelines that came out on Monday still leave too much confusion.”

Northam’s office responded with a statement: “This is about public health. While Governor Northam wants nothing more than to have children back in school this fall, recent surges in other states make it clear we need to proceed cautiously. We must continue to prioritize safety – not just for the students and their families, but for teachers, staff, and communities across the Commonwealth.”  

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver and Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane wrote that the update reflects “the latest science, and the best public health guidance and recommendations available intended to reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in school settings.”

As localities have been debating the appropriate plan for their district, the political pressure continues from the federal government to reopen fully.

Betsy Devos, the Secretary of Education for Donald Trump recently took a jab at the plans announced by Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) giving parents the choice of total remote-learning, or a hybrid of two days in school with the rest remote-learning. “A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” said Devos on a call with Governors. 

One Fairfax parent defended FCPS on Blue Virginia. “While there is no one ecstatic about FCPS’ return to school process and options, teachers and students are being given “a choice,” said Adam Siegel. Siegel is a Fairfax resident and FCPS parent.  He credits the school district leadership for trying to move forward. “Seeking to deal with uncertainty about how to safely have students back in the schools; receiving mediocre and mixed guidance from the federal level; dealing with inadequate resources to institute massive safety programs – frequent testing, greatly expanding staff (medical, cleaning/sterilizing), PPE and other supplies, etc. – the FCPS leadership is seeking to create the best path forward.” 

Virginia Beach is still finalizing a plan, though they have narrowed it down to three general options. 

  1. Daily, face-to-face instruction
  2. Alternating days with students in smaller groups, going between in-person and online learning
  3. Online learning only

While administrators recently sent a survey to parents for feedback, one teacher told the Scope that they are ready to go back. “I just want to teach in the classroom again,” said a Virginia Beach middle school teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “The virtual learning did not seem to have any rigor or meaning behind it.”

Chesterfield County Public Schools are still weighing several possible options. The School Board is expected to give more guidance and make a decision later in July, but parents in the community are anxiously waiting. 

“The Chesterfield community is on edge and the Chesterfield leadership has failed to offer a plan for reentry so our parents, teachers, and staff can make a plan for their children,” said Carrie Kahwajy, a community organizer and parent of a Chesterfield County Public Schools student. “These decisions affect all of our community. It doesn’t matter if you are a parent or an employee of the school system or the neighbor that will be asked to help out or the business that needs you to work: you are interested because it affects your life and how you will be able to live it. This decision has consequences for everyone.”

A Virginia-based Facebook group with over 20,000 members is lobbying for sending students back to school full-time. The Virginia Back2School page tells visitors that they “hope to network with you regarding information, advocacy and lobbying government officials in an effort to support opening the schools (with increased hygiene measures) to the fullest extent possible,”. 

The group is adamant that they are also supportive of an optional remote learning option in addition to the full-time plan. 

 Amy Kenyon, the administrator of the Henrico-faction of the Back2School group praised the Virginia Republicans for their press conference on Wednesday. “I cannot say that there is anything that I disagree with in this video! Thank you for fighting for Virginia!” said Kenyon as she shared the video in the group. 

Members of the group are also pushing back against people who question their motives for wanting the children back in school. “As a working parent – I disagree with the opinion here that schools will be open just as a “space to place children so that parents can go back to work,” said one woman in the group in response to a post about parents wanting free childcare. “C’mon. I want my kid to have an education.”

Groups pushing for a cautious reopening approach are also appearing on social media, like one group also based in Henrico County called ‘HCPS Back to School Safely’.  “We are a newly formed organization working to ensure the safety of all teachers, staff, and students in returning to Henrico County Public Schools in the fall,” said representatives of the group in a press release. “We are comprised of Henrico County Public School Employees, parents, and community stakeholders.”

Ryan Burgess, a Henrico County teacher is an administrator of the safe return group. “Personally I do not feel comfortable risking my own health and safety being in a building where staff and faculty are required to wear masks but students are not,” said Burgess to the Scope. “That is where I drew my own personal line as far as returning to work.” 

Education advocates want to make sure that the most vulnerable students are not lost in this process. “What I think should be done, is people need to put aside their notions of what school has been or should be, and they need to think survival mode,” said Rachel Levy, a Hanover parent and teacher in Caroline County.  “We should be prioritizing our most vulnerable students first.”

The Virginia Beach middle school teacher echoed this sentiment. “Virtual learning only seemed beneficial for students that already had A’s and B’s and good reading comprehension skills.” 

Northam acknowledged the importance of this as well when discussing schools reopening. “We must do so in a safe, responsible, and equitable manner that minimizes the risk of exposure to the virus and meets the needs of the Virginia students who have been disproportionately impacted by lost classroom time.”

While teachers are anxious about moving forward for several reasons, the country’s main authority on the pandemic offered a grim outlook for the future. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert spoke about schools reopening to a United States Senate panel in June. “We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100K a day if this does not turn around so I’m very concerned … I think it’s important to tell you and the American public that I’m very concerned because it could get very bad.”

While noting that he can only make suggestions on current information, Fauci said he wants children to be able to go to school. “I feel very strongly we need to do whatever we can to get the children back to school,” said Fauci.

Both sides, full of Democrats and Republicans in a bipartisan fashion,  believe they know what is best for their kids and themselves. With COVID-19 numbers no longer dropping and very little evidence about the spread or damage it could have on children, it is hard to imagine the school year starting normal in September. Either way, it is reasonable to expect chaos as the best-case scenario.

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By vascope

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