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Henrico Students to Begin In-Person Return Feb. 22

Under a new reopening plan, proposed by Henrico School Board Chair Michelle Ogburn, the county's youngest students can return to classrooms on Feb. 22, after teachers have had their first COVID-19 shot, but before they get their second dose. (Source: HCPS Livestream)

After several delays, the Henrico school board has officially decided when students can begin returning to school buildings. 

Under the new timeline, students in pre-K through elementary school can return to the classroom before all teachers who want the COVID-19 vaccine receive their second dose, while most middle and high school students will return after staff are fully vaccinated.

Pre-K through 2nd grade will return Feb. 22. Classes will be held in-person Monday and Tuesday, and virtually Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays remain as virtual half-days to deep clean school buildings and give students and staff planning time and additional support.

HCPS says all staff members who want to get vaccinated will have their first dose by tomorrow, Feb 5. The second dose will be administered on Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays from Feb. 17 to March 5. That’s why classes remain virtual on Thursdays and Fridays — in case staff need space to recover from the vaccine’s potential side effects.

The next cohort of students — in 3rd through 5th grade, in 6th grade and in 9h grade — will return March 1. Again, this is before all staff are fully vaccinated, so classes will still be held virtually Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays remain off.

“We’d like to offer 6th and 9th graders, who are for the first time entering their middle or high school, an opportunity to do that in advance of the entire secondary student body, and so that was the reason we’d requested a staggered start,” said Superintendent Amy Cashwell. 

The remainder of secondary students — 7th and 8th grade, and 10th through 12th — can return March 10. Since all staff who wanted the vaccine will be fully vaccinated by then, classes will be held in person every day of the week starting on March 10, except Wednesdays, which remain virtual until further notice. 

Fully remote classes will remain an option for families who want it. 

HCPS Chief of Staff Beth Teigen, a member of the school board’s health committee, says about 6,000 staff members opted to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. She says that’s a little over half of HCPS staff. Out of teachers only, Teigen says roughly 75% are getting vaccinated.

“We meet and exceed all Department of Labor and Industry workplace requirements for PPE, and had staff complete the following trainings: promoting behaviors that reduce the spread of COVID-19, and working safely during COVID-19,” Teigen emphasized during a presentation from the health committee.

She reinforced that the committee believes Henrico schools are prepared to reopen based on their adherence to several risk mitigation measures: use of face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer in every room, bathrooms checked for soap and paper towels regularly, and facilities and buses sanitized more than daily.

Marcie Shea, the board’s vice chair and representative for the Tuckahoe District, pushed for an earlier return for all students, which would have the youngest students back in the classroom by Feb. 15, and all students back by March 10. She said the return to in-person is “not a safety issue,” but rather, a discussion about logistics.

“We are following the health committee’s unanimous recommendation that it is safe for elementary, and secondary and staff to be back in the building before the second vaccine,” Shea said. “[Health experts] are saying that even without the second dose of the vaccine, it is safe for students of all ages to be in the building with their teachers, and I have to trust that.” 

Boardmember Kristi Kinsella of the Brookland District was more apprehensive. She urged her colleagues to hold off on having all students back in classrooms until mid-March, well after staff had had their second vaccine dose, based on science that shows vaccines take about 10 days to take effect.

“When Dr. Avula was here, he said very clearly — and it’s one of the things I’ve kept with me since July — that secondary students transmit like adults,” Kinsella said, voicing concerns of COVID-19 transmission between middle and high school students and school staff.

In the end, the board reached a compromise timeline proposed by Board Chair Michelle Ogburn of the Three Chopt District. It was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Kinsella opposing.

The board’s latest reopening timeline comes after a series of delays last month. An in-person return for Henrico was initially slated for Jan. 11, then it was pushed back to Jan. 25, and then, i t was pushed back indefinitely when the district became aware that vaccines were being made available to HCPS staff sooner than expected.

During the Thursday special meeting, Boardmember Roscoe Cooper of the Fairfield District voiced frustration with “many emails, countless social media posts” that accused the board of not caring for the school district’s staff.

“We all care about all of our students and each and every one of our staff members,” said Cooper, who’s also a parent of two HCPS students. “I’ve seen the devastating personal impact this virus has had on our families, our communities, our schools.”

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