Virginia’s public schools need to begin planning how to resume in-person learning, Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday as the state rolled out new guidelines for school districts on how to make that decision.
“I know that parents and teachers and students are eager to get back to the classroom, and we all want to reopen schools safely and the right way,” he said during a news conference in Richmond. “I want schools to come from this starting point: How do we get schools open safely.”
The guidance, posted by the state Department of Education after Northam’s news conference, focuses not just on community transmission of COVID-19 but also on schools’ abilities to mitigate any impacts.
“Our schools are safe,” Northam said. “We know that we can follow the mitigation measures. Children are good about wearing masks. Teachers and staff are good with spacing.”
Dr. James F. Lane, the state superintendent of public instruction, noted during the news conference that there have been few outbreaks of the virus in schools that have reopened, and most of those have involved five or fewer cases.
“We’ve been able to open many of our schools in the commonwealth quite safely,” Lane added.
In Northern Virginia, only Prince William County public schools is offering any in-person instruction. The youngest students began returning on a hybrid basis in early November, and second- and third-graders returned this week. Parents can still opt for virtual learning. However, the Prince William School Board has delayed until Feb. 17 a decision on when to reopen classrooms for older students.
Loudoun County schools offered some in-person learning in elementary schools in the fall but returned to all remote learning in mid-December due to the surge in coronavirus cases.
Many local school systems have been relying on Centers for Disease Control indicators published by the Virginia Department of Health, but the new guidance says they should first consider mitigation measures within their schools.
The new guidance provides a matrix for decision-making that incorporates the CDC’s community transmission measures with the ability of the schools to mitigate transmission and the level of current cases or absences due to illness within the schools. For example, even at the highest level of community transmission, schools with good mitigation efforts could still return “priority learners” to in-person classes.
Priority learners are defined as students for whom in-person instruction is most critical, including younger students, students with disabilities and English-language learners.
Although some school systems have begun vaccinating teachers and staff, vaccinations should not be a precursor to reopening schools, Lane said. He added, though, that decisions are still up to individual school districts.
“We don’t anticipate that schools will start opening tomorrow,” Lane said. “We’re expecting school boards to make decisions around a much more clear matrix.”
Northam said he worries about the long-term effects of virtual learning.
“Children are hurting right now; families are hurting; we hear it every day,” he said. “Test results are going down. …. We all need to collectively get our children back into school and that’s where they need to be for a lot of different reasons.”
In the long term, Northam said, the state will be looking at adjusting the school calendar with the possibility of operating year-round in order to keep students from falling farther behind.