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Schools could open in the fall

Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday announced a phased approach that allows Virginia schools to slowly resume in-person classes for summer school and the coming academic year, but each phase comes with its caveats that will make school look different.

“I know that parents are very interested in our plans for how to safely return children to our classrooms,” Northam said during a Tuesday press conference in Richmond. He touted his decision on March 23 to close down schools for the rest of the school year — one of the first states in the nation to make the sweeping announcement — as helping mitigate the spread of the virus.

“Closing our schools was a necessary step to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of staff, students and our communities,” said Northam. “Our schools have risen to the occasion and found ways to provide remote learning opportunities, keep students engaged, continue serving meals for children who otherwise would have gone hungry, and support students and families through an immensely challenging time.

“Resuming in-person instruction is a high priority, but 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,” he added.

The Virginia Department of Education convened numerous and diverse stakeholders through the Return to School Recovery Task Force, the Accreditation Task Force, and the Continuity for Learning Task Force this spring to inform strategies for reopening. Secretary of Education Atif Qarni held 35 strategy sessions with diverse groups of education stakeholders between May 29 and June 8 to gather their recommendations on how different reopening scenarios would impact their respective roles.

“These plans are informed by a range of perspectives and will help ensure that we prioritize the social emotional well-being of all of our students, their families, and educators as we go back to school this summer and fall,” said Secretary Qarni. “In-person learning is most essential for special education students, English language learners, young children, and other vulnerable students who depend upon the structure, in-person connection, and resources our school communities provide.”

Local school divisions will have discretion within each phase and may choose to offer more limited in-person options than the phase permits, depending on local public health conditions. Entry into each phase is dependent on public health criteria. School divisions will have flexibility to implement plans based on the needs of their localities, within the parameters of the state guidance.

The opportunities for in-person instruction in each phase are as follows:

  • Phase One: special education programs and child care for working families
  • Phase Two: Phase One plus preschool through third grade students, English learners and summer camps in school buildings
  • Phase Three: all students may receive in-person instruction as can be accommodated with strict social distancing measures in place, which may require alternative schedules that blend in-person and remote learning for students
  • Beyond Phase Three: divisions will resume “new-normal” operations under future guidance

Beginning with Phase Two, local divisions and private schools must submit plans to the Virginia Department of Education that include policies and procedures for implementing Virginia Department of Health and CDC mitigation strategies. State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver has issued an Order of Public Health Emergency that requires all Virginia PreK-12 public and private schools to develop plans that demonstrate adherence to public health guidance. Public schools must also outline plans to offer new instruction to all students, regardless of operational status.

“School will be open for all students next year, but instruction will look different,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane. “The phased, hybrid approach allows PreK-12 students to have valuable class time and face-to-face interaction with their peers, while prioritizing health and safety by ensuring physical distancing measures are maintained. This plan keeps equity at the forefront by giving divisions the opportunity to deliver in-person instruction to those who need it the most.”

In every phase, PreK-12 schools must follow CDC Guidance for Schools, including social and physical distancing, enhanced health and hygiene procedures, cleaning and disinfecting measures, and other mitigation strategies. These precautions include, but are not limited to:

  • Daily health screenings of students and staff
  • Providing remote learning exceptions and teleworking for students and staff who are at a higher risk of severe illness
  • The use of cloth face coverings by staff when at least six feet physical distancing cannot be maintained
  • Encouraging the use of face coverings in students, as developmentally appropriate, in settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained

The Virginia High School League, which facilitates competition among schools in sports as well as activities such as drama and chess, said it looks forward to the reopening of schools.

“Once we review the documents provided by the governor to reopen schools, we will move as quickly as possible to develop guidelines that will align with his plans,” said VHSL Executive Director Dr. John W. “Billy” Haun. “It is important to say that these guidelines must also align with local school divisions and superintendents reopening plans under Phase II & III.”