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State Rolls Out K-12 School Reopening Guidance

School front entrance
Virginia school are entering a phased reopening process. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Virginia school districts finally received guidelines from the governor for how – and when – preK-12 public and private schools can resume in-person classes over the summer and fall. The guidance lines up with the phases of reopening that the state has issued for businesses.

“To be clear, all Virginia schools will open for students next year,” Gov. Ralph Northam said. “But the school experience will look very different, these phases will allow in person instruction, but slowly. We'll start with small groups, and we will allow each school division the flexibility that it needs to respond to the needs of its own locality.”

Districts have flexibility in deciding what to do, but must submit detailed plans to the Virginia Department of Education for review before entering into phase two or three of the outlined guidance. The Virginia Council for Private Education will review plans submitted by private schools.

“The phased approach to reopening schools provides the maximum allowable flexibility, and schools may be more limited in their in-person instructional offerings than the phase allows,” the guidance reads. “Community mitigation strategies (e.g. physical distancing, enhanced cleaning, etc.) will be necessary across all phases to decrease the spread of COVID-19.”

Most localities, except Richmond and Northern Virginia, are in phase two. That means they’re eligible to submit plans for in-person summer school and some extracurricular activities, like clubs and sports practices. Sports competitions are strongly discouraged under phase two. If games do take place, they must keep players 10 feet apart and limit participants (including players and spectators to 50 people). 

Under phase one and two, in-person instruction for students with special needs is allowed. Under phase two, in-person instruction can be extended to English-language learners and students in grades preK-3. State leaders like Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni and Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in-person instruction has been prioritized for these groups because participation in remote learning has been low, and suboptimal.

“We heard over and over again from families about the impacts of remote learning on those communities,” said Lane. “And so we wanted to provide flexibility as early as we could in the phases in a safe way to make sure we provided equitable opportunities for those students.”

Qarni anticipates the state will be “well into phase three” by August barring COVID-19 spikes, which would allow districts to resume in-person classes – or some hybrid of in-person and remote learning – by the fall.

Qarni said it’s too early to determine whether or not the state will seek a waiver from the federal government to halt standardized tests next year. “Our decision on getting waivers on SOL standards will depend on what happens this fall,” Qarni said. “We’ll certainly be very flexible if there’s a disruption in instruction.”

Even if districts have the option to resume in-person fall instruction, that doesn’t mean in-person instruction must resume. Some teachers are concerned about maintaining CDC social distancing requirements in classrooms.

“This will likely require staggered schedules and innovative approaches to the way that students come to our buildings,” Lane said. Additional guidance from VDOE lays out sample staggered schedules and other details districts should consider before submitting plans for reopening to VDOE. State officials encourage districts to contact them with concerns they should take into consideration.

Regardless of what districts opt to do, all school divisions are required to submit a plan for providing instruction in the 2020-2021 academic school year “regardless of phase or the operational status of the school.” The state wants to see plans for how districts will address learning loss due to closures when the COVID-10 pandemic began, as well as plans for going back to “fully remote instruction should public health conditions require it.” 

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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