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Chesterfield School Board Votes for Virtual Reopening

Monacan High School.
All 63,000 students in Chesterfield County will be attending school virtually this coming fall. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

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Chesterfield County’s School Board voted 4 to 1 to send students back to classes strictly online this fall. 

Board President Debbie Bailey said that she is angry, frustrated and sad at both federal and state officials who passed the decision making process down to school board members who are not health experts. 

“How did it come to pass that we have to make a decision about the health of 63.000 students and 8000 teachers and staff with little to no guidance,” Bailey said.

Bailey went on to say that she thought the decision shouldn’t be political or based on the loudest voices in the room.

The vote comes after several weeks of over 100 virtual town hall meetings and a survey sent to parents asking them for input about which of the six options they’d like to see when school returns in September.

Those ranged from full time, face-to-face classes, to a rotating schedule that would’ve seen students in their seats on a part-time basis mixed with virtual learning. The last option was 100-percent virtual classes, something Superintendent Merv Daugherty recommended the school board vote for. 

Also in line with Daugherty is the Chesterfield Education Association, the teacher union in the county. Prior to the board meeting, President Sonia Smith held a car rally, hoping to sway the board to vote for 100 percent virtual classes. 

Board member Ryan Harter cast the no vote. Harter cited the county’s parent and teacher survey results which favored for students to return to class in person, full time.

“Speaking with the principals and other educational leaders in the Matoaca district, it was collectively noted that the teachers wishing to return were in the majority--parents wishing for the students to return, in some fashion, were in a majority,” Harter said.

Harter, who is a former teacher, says having children go back to school in person will help those who suffer with social isolation or other issues that teachers are able to report on.  

Vice Chair Dorothy “Dot” Heffron also voted in favor of a completely virtual fall semester. Heffron said she has heard from over a thousand constituents regarding the upcoming fall semester.

“I’ve heard from the parents who have shared how their sons and daughters struggled this past spring when our division closed after the declaration of the state of emergency, and had to quickly pivot from in person learning to fully online,” said Heffron.

She said she understands the toll the loss of social and emotional learning kids have suffered because of the closures.  

“How do we send teachers, staff and students into confined spaces when we know there will be infections,” Heffron said. “And I’ve heard the fiercely passionate pleas from every side of this issue.” 

But she said, “we all have opinions but what are facts?” Heffron said she’s not a scientist and that first and foremost she’s a mom of three Chesterfield students and she has to make a decision she can live with. 

“I can live with temporary inconvenience,” Heffron said. “While pandemics are many things, they are not indefinite. This pandemic will end and we will get to the other side of this. There will be a tomorrow. We will have in person as soon as it’s safe to do so and only when it’s safe to do, not when I hope it’s safe to do so.” 

Heffron also said that all special needs students, and English language learners and those in Title One schools must be and will be accommodated during virtual learning. 

“We must not lose sight of the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic and we cannot simply wish this virus away. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist--the data is widely available and it’s clear,” Heffron said. 

Daugherty’s recommendations go against what the majority of families said they preferred in a recent survey. More than 80-percent responded that they would send children back to school, face-to-face, if the schools offered it, and many also supported having students physically attend school on a rotating basis. 

But, according to documents presented at the meeting, that survey was distributed to people outside of Chesterfield and even posted on various Facebook groups where people are advocating for full time, in-person classes. Officials say they have no way of knowing those who took the survey actually live in the county.

Board member Kathryn Haines said that she’d love to work with those who wanted their children to return to school full time this fall. 

“I empathize with where they [are]. Because that’s what I wanted. From day one, I was looking for data that proved I could get our kids back,” Haines said.

She added that getting kids back to full time is a very complex, logistical puzzle but, “we have to get Covid under control.”

According to Chesterfield school officials, 100 virtual meetings were held with the public  to discuss the six reopening options. The board is expected to vote on the plans tonight

Not all schools in the region are on the same page. 

Last week, Richmond Public Schools voted to go to 100-percent virtual classes, but Hanovor CountySchools will have students return in person with a virtual option available. Henrico Countyis expected to vote this week, and Superintendent Amy Cashwell is recommending 100 percent virtual.

Chesterfield County students return to school throughout the second week of September.


Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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