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As Hanover Schools Reopen In Person, COVID Concerns Raised

Building facade
Hanover County School Board offices. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

VPM intern Alexander Broening reported this story.

Hanover County Public Schools plan to reopen September 8. The district will be one of only a few in the state to offer a fully in-person option alongside a separate online-only school. Although the plan was unanimously approved by the school board in July, some parents and teachers are raising concerns.

Families had roughly two weeks to opt-in to virtual or face-to-face instruction to meet a July 31 deadline. A minority of Hanover’s roughly 17,000 students, about 40 percent, choose to learn online, according to an HCPS spokesperson.

The reopening next week will come as the Chickahominy Health District, which includes Hanover, is reporting increases in testing positivity rates in-line with the state average - rising from around four and five percent through August to nearly 7.8% this week. The seven day average statewide is 7.7% as of Thursday. The school district has also seen a few coronavirus cases in recent months, including a student enrolled in a summer program and a number of employees.

Teachers and a parent interviewed by VPM expressed concerns that the county plan, which says “every effort will be made to maintain student distance with a goal of 6 feet,” will not ensure adequate social distancing.

Chris Whitley, HCPS’s spokesperson, acknowledged it will be a challenge. In an email, he wrote this “is why all students and staff are required to wear a cloth face covering at all times, except while eating or drinking.” This requirement goes farther than state guidelines, which suggest cloth coverings.

Students who opted for remote learning will attend a new virtual school: Hanover Online School. Teachers have been assigned to either Hanover Online or physical schools based on any health conditions, preferences, and student enrollment. Enrollment and teacher positions are binding until the semester ends in January, in order to keep teachers and students together for instructional continuity.

Julie Stubblefield, a middle school parent, is critical of the reopening, and says the current plan will deepen inequity.

“The online school is creating problems of equity for students, parents, and teachers alike,” Stubblefield said, noting that families have varying levels of internet access, transportation options, and time to support at-home learning.

While most Hanover families have broadband, a significant number have low-speed internet or cell plans only, and a survey sent out by HCPS showed about 30 percent of respondents did not have access to reliable high-speed internet. 

To address the inequity, the school district is giving out portable hotspots and laptops. The HCPS website says students will be prioritized based on need and the number of devices available. Last week, the county started shipping chromebooks to everyone enrolled in online classes.

Mixed Feelings Among Hanover Students

According to a survey HCPS sent out to parents, 75 percent said they would send their kids back to school if face-to-face learning was an option. Nearly 90 percent said they would choose a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning if one was available.

Hailey Jennings is a freshman enrolled in the Health Sciences Center at Hanover High School who wants to study nursing. She said she intended to take online classes, but learned the science program was one of two speciality programs only offered in-person. 

Her mother, Rebecca Jennings, was happy to send her back to physical classrooms. 

“We know Hailey thrives in a face-to-face environment,” she said.

Although it wasn’t her initial choice, Hailey Jennings says she’s excited to go back in person. When Virginia schools went virtual last spring, she said she struggled to ask her teacher questions and follow the material.

“I’m a really social person and last year it was challenging to understand things without a teacher in front of me,” she said. 

Other students say it was unclear which classes would be available online when they had to make the decision. Carter, a senior at Hanover High School who didn’t want to share his full name, said he was returning to in-person learning because he wasn’t sure he could take all his classes online.

“I’m taking four AP courses this year, and I’m also a band student,” Carter said. “I’m not sure if the classes will be different online, or if I will be able to take them online, so I’m returning in person just to be safe.”

Carter says the process was difficult and confusing for both him and his parents. And though he’s opted for in-person education, some of his classes are only available online, so he’ll be doing virtual learning too. 

“All the information we’ve been given is very general [from the school district],” Carter said. “I know they’re waiting until the last minute to decide things because it's an uncertain time, but it's leaving us in the dark.”

Teachers Worry About Safety During Face-to-Face Instruction

Despite planned safety precautions, some Hanover County teachers are still worried about going back to the classroom. 

An elementary school resource teacher in Hanover County spoke with VPM News on the condition that their identity be protected out of fear of retribution. They said their class sizes weren’t being reduced to limit coronavirus exposure.

“I can’t understand why I’m still going to have 20 kids per class.”

Although Whitley told VPM that classrooms had been rearranged to increase distancing, there was no district-wide plan to reduce class sizes.

The teacher says they visit multiple classes, coming into contact with as many as 120 students every day. Because the classes rotate, they’ll eventually come into contact with every single student at the school. 

They worry about getting sick and passing COVID-19 on to their elderly mother, who lives in an assisted living home: “My main goal this year is to just not get sick.”

And although they requested a transfer to a smaller elementary school before the summer deadline, they said the request had been denied.

Teachers who wished to teach online had to request a position at Hanover Online School by July 30. As of September 3, Whitley said all teachers have received their assignments.

At least one teacher chose to resign due to concern with the plan.

Starting in 2016, David Chung was a band director at the middle school formerly named for Stonewall Jackson. Early this summer, Chung requested to teach online because of concerns about in-person learning spreading the coronavirus. His request was denied. He told VPM that the final reopening plan doesn’t address his concerns, and that he believes it won’t adequately slow the spread of the disease. 

“I don’t have any preexisting condition or anything like that that would prevent me from being face to face. I can just be a host for the virus because I’m human,” Chung said, explaining that the district would only let him teach online if he was considered high risk.

On August 24, Chung learned that his request for online teaching had been denied. Later that day, he turned in his resignation. 

“If they hadn’t responded to my resignation the same day, I would not have been able to resign in time within the terms of my contract,” Chung said. 

The HCPS spokesperson told VPM that all teachers with “the necessary medical documentation,” essentially an independent evaluation from a medical provider that the teacher is at high risk from the coronavirus, had been granted permission to teach from home.

But both Chung and Stubblefield, the concerned parent, questioned why teachers had to be personally at high risk to get a position teaching online, asking if a teaching job should mandate exposure to a pandemic.

Concerns Include Transparency, Teaching Effectiveness

In transitioning to an online format, some teachers say they’ve been frustrated by communication with HCPS.

Chung said he received contradictory information over a series of phone calls and emails after applying to teach online. 

“I just feel really betrayed, because… I went through the proper channels and asked questions, but my questions were never answered,” he said.

Similar misunderstandings and failures of communication by the county were a common thread among sources who talked to VPM News, who described HCPS outreach as “general” and “last minute.” Chung said that the execution of the reopening plans are “an insane amount of work” that he thinks “will be proved to be really reckless.”

Some parents and teachers also said they worry there will be a lack of transparency around positive COVID-19 cases, but Whitley says they are working with the Hanover Health Department, which will communicate directly with anyone who contracts the disease.

“We plan to provide same-day notification [via email] to all staff, students, and families of positive COVID-19 cases within their building,” Whitley said.

Some teachers will be teaching outside of their endorsement areas, or subject matter expertise, Whitley also confirmed, while others will shift courses in the same general areas: Such as from world history to “Modern Global Studies.” 

Both Stubblefield and the anonymous teacher who spoke with VPM said they thought instruction would suffer because of this, and Stubblefield said she was aware of a teacher who would be teaching a course for the first time in a decade.

And with some teachers only being assigned this week, Stubblefield questioned how they could generate a new curriculum in time for September 8 - the first day of school.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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