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Despite Dangers, Chesterfield Schools Continue In-Person Learning

school bus
As of now, all Chesterfield students can attend school in person, at least two days a week. The county schools superintendent said the district will discuss a path forward in December. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

*VPM reporter Ian Stewart contributed to this report.

Chesterfield County Public Schools is continuing to teach all students in-person, contradicting the district’s own safety metrics, even as COVID-19 cases increase in the county. During a school board meeting Tuesday, teachers and staff shared their concerns.

As of Nov. 10, Chesterfield is reporting 201.7 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, elevating the county to the “highest risk of transmission in school,” according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Chesterfield uses a different metric from the state, which averages out several indicators from VDH, including the total cases, testing positivity rate, and ability to implement viral spread mitigation strategies that include hand hygiene and mask wearing.

Nick Oyler, the district’s student health coordinator, presented that data to the board Tuesday, and said CCPS is moving further into the “moderate” category COVID-19 transmission risk -- now at 3.33 on a 5 point scale, with 5 being the highest risk. This puts the district above the risk threshold it established as "safe" to return middle and high school students, but still within an acceptable range for the first two groups of returning students.

“In the moderate range, we’d be at a pause,” Oyler said, describing how they’d handle returning students to in-person education from virtual. However, students have already returned, “so I think the best course of action would be to monitor the data and partner with the health department,” he said.

The board’s health committee -- which is overseeing the transition back to in-person instruction -- had previously decided students should not return to the classroom if transmission risk metrics reached “moderate” levels. The county was rated moderate last month, as Chesterfield schools expanded in-person classes and returned its fourth cohort of students.

Educators and staff spoke during the meeting’s public comment section, condemning the board’s response to the pandemic. Among the speakers was school teacher Emma Clark, who’s also a member of the Chesterfield Education Association.

“If you care about the education of students and about the safety of students, then you don’t send them into buildings when three quarters of your staff feel unsafe and unprepared, much less if you care about the staff members themselves,” Clark said.

Currently, Clark is being reprimanded by the district and her school for not showing up to teach in-person classes at Falling Creek Middle School. She told school staff and district officials that due to the rise in coronavirus cases in the county, she does not feel safe teaching in person. 

As of now, all students can attend school in person, at least two days a week. Superintendent Mervin Daugherty -- who's contract with CCPS was extended Tuesday to the year 2024 -- told school board members the district will discuss how to proceed with in-person instruction in December.

“A lot is going to change in the next two months, but we also want to talk about what our path forward looks like for our second semester,” he said. Daugherty said changes will depend on new health data, and also on new safety guidelines, which he anticipates next year’s new presidential administration will deliver.

Until the next board meeting in December, Daugherty said school closures will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, instead of the district as a whole.

The district is still struggling with student transportation. At a work session prior to the nighttime meeting, the board heard an update from the director of transportation, Calvin Frye. 

Frye said they had enough drivers to transport students in the first three cohorts, and reported no issues with driving students over the past few months. But a lack of drivers is causing problems with the final group of students returning.

Frye said his department needs roughly 500 drivers, and are allocated to hire that many, but have 65 on leave, some due to COVID-19, and are still looking to hire 56 drivers. Those open positions cause current drivers to have to do what’s called a “double back,” driving the same route twice.

“We’re taking care of those staffing challenges by having as many as 150 double backs in the a.m. alone,” Frye said.

Frye also said there’s a delay in getting drivers back on the road in the afternoon because the wait time is now longer as kids have to physically distance as they wait to board the bus. 

Editor's Note: We've added details about differing risk levels for different groups of students.

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