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A Year Into COVID, Virginia School Reopenings Still in Doubt

Woman seated on porch with laptop
Cassie Gilboy is a Richmond Public Schools teacher. As state leaders continue to push school districts to open for in-person learning, some teachers, including Gilboy, are conflicted, unsure what's best for their students. (Photo: Scott Elmquist)

This article by Emma Davis is posted as part of VPM's partnership with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism

Jessica Delk has been waiting months for Henrico Public Schools to open back up for in-person learning. 

Delk’s three children spent nearly a year in the virtual world of online classes during the Covid-19 pandemic. They were ready, Delk said, when they started to go back to school in February.

The choice to send her children back to the classroom was long overdue, she said. Some of her friends enrolled their children at private schools or moved to nearby Hanover County to get classroom instruction. 

“It’s been super frustrating being a Henrico County resident,” she said.

But other Virginia families want to continue virtual learning during the pandemic. 

“I only have about five to eight kids coming back per class,” said Jenn Strojny, a high school social studies teacher in Henrico County. “Everybody else has remained virtual.” 

A year into the Covid pandemic, educators and lawmakers across Virginia are still grappling with how to provide a safe, stable and enriching in-person instruction for 1.2 million public school students. Some families worry about the long-term consequences caused by a year of spotty, virtual learning. Others feel safer to ride out the pandemic and school year at home, concerned whether  schools can keep their children free from the virus.

Gov. Ralph Northam has called for all schools to offer some form of in-person learning by March 15.  But Northam’s call is an expectation and not a mandate, said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, who emphasized that legislation is still needed to ensure in-person  learning is offered. 

Dunnavant’s bill, SB 1303, requires schools to offer in-person learning to all Virginia students. The measure was passed by the General Assembly and now awaits a decision by Northam.

Dunnavant cited concerns about children’s learning loss and mental health, specifically suicidal ideation, when explaining why she proposed her bill. 

“My risk analysis was: it was more risky to be out of school than to be in,” Dunnavant said. 

The final version of the bill passed by the General Assembly requires districts to offer in-person learning five days a week, while following the health and safety guidelines of the federal ​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as best they can. 

The CDC issued ​ guidelines Feb. 12 to support K-12 schools in opening for in-person instruction, citing increasing evidence that in-person learning is not a primary driver of community transmission. However, reduced transmission depends on mitigation strategies — such as the correct use of masks, physical distancing and hand washing — and community transmission numbers. The CDC issued different recommendations for school reopening plans depending on those factors. 

The bill, which was amended in committee, also gives cities and counties flexibility to meet the education needs of their communities, said Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun. 

“We amended the bill to basically give localities a little more leeway and allow for us to return our kids to school while feeling that they’re going to be returning to a safe learning  environment,” he said. 

 A school division’s inability to meet all CDC mitigation strategies will not allow them to opt out of classroom instruction, Dunnavant said.

“So many of these school divisions have said ‘well we can’t follow these mitigation strategies as much as we want to and open schools, therefore we will not open,’” Dunnavant said. “This [bill] says you will open and you will use mitigation strategies as best you can — but you will open.”

Lawmakers rejected calls to make the legislation effective in the current school year. If approved, the law will take effect July 1.

Frustration has been mounting for parents, educators and legislators across Virginia as they wrestle with how best to teach students while keeping children and school employees safe during the pandemic. 

Inconsistency among school divisions — even those separated by a single street or block — has  provoked anger and resentment, along with deep concerns over children potentially left behind  by virtual learning. 

Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, said forgoing in-person learning has shut down avenues  to success for lower-income students.  

“Wealthy families can afford private tutors,” he said. “They can afford to put their kids in private  school.” Middle class families working multiple jobs cannot afford a tutor or spend extra time helping their children, he said. “This has been devastating for them.”

Re-opening policies and Covid safety precautions have varied throughout the state. Just 11 of Virginia’s 132 districts remain fully remote, as of March 8

Covid-safety measures in Virginia schools have included mask wearing, installing clear plastic shields on desks separated by six feet, having children eat lunch in classrooms rather than cafeterias, and holding some parts of the day virtually for all students, including specials such as physical education and art, to limit interactions in schools.

Richmond Public School students are currently attending school online, while students in  Hanover County and Southwest Virginia have had the option to attend school in person since the  start of the 2020-21 school year. Several other counties, including Henrico, are now returning to limited in-person instruction after months of virtual classes.  

When Henrico decided to offer in-person instruction, teachers had to decide whether to teach in  person, submit an Americans with Disabilities Act request to continue teaching virtually, take a   leave of absence, resign or retire.  

“It’s kind of a mess because some teachers had to resign … because they didn’t necessarily have an accommodation but they didn’t feel comfortable teaching in-person,” said Beth Rooney, a 5th grade teacher at Tuckahoe Elementary in Henrico. 

Rooney began teaching in a hybrid classroom March 1. Her main challenge has been creating a sense of community between her in-person and virtual students, she said. But she thinks offering both options is necessary. 

 “I think it’s very important to understand the needs of every family,” Rooney said. 

But offering in-person instruction presents challenges in some school settings. 

In Richmond, for example, superintendent Jason Kamras told the school board the division would not be able to meet CDC safety guidelines during the current academic year. Kamras specifically noted that the air quality in many school buildings is inadequate.  

Cassie Gilboy, a first grade teacher at Broad Rock Elementary in Richmond, also worries the division’s buildings are unsafe for in-person instruction.  

“I’ve been in so many other [Richmond Public School] buildings where there are no walls, where the walls don’t go to the ceiling,” Gilboy said. “So it’s like pretty much an open floor plan for a whole school.” 

Gilboy is conflicted about whether Virginia schools should return to in-person learning.  

“Covid could be so detrimental to so many of my kids and families that I’m thankful that we’re virtual in a lot of ways,” she said, “but for those kids that are falling through the cracks, it’s so sad because it’s like they’re missing pretty much their whole year of first grade and no one  knows the effects of that.”  

Doug and Sarah Brabrand, parents of elementary students in Richmond Public Schools, also worry some students will be left behind.

“One of the things we’re really concerned about is the rest of Virginia public school systems  giving the option and Richmond not, further increasing the equity gap for disadvantaged kids in Richmond city schools,” Doug Brabrand said.  

Many of Virginia’s rural schools have been holding school in-person since the start of the academic year.  

Bristol Public School superintendent Keith Perrigan, said the students in his district have had an in-person learning option since Aug. 20. Bristol went fully virtualaround the December holidays because of staff shortages but has since returned to in-person learning.  

“Overcoming the initial fear of opening was probably our biggest challenge,” Perrigan said.  

Perrigan, who also serves as the president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of  Virginia, said limited broadband access has made virtual learning difficult for many rural students.  

“We have students that are learning in a virtual environment that have no connection to the school,” Perrigan said, “and then they have to drive to a church parking lot or a shopping center parking lot to even get on the internet, or go by a school and pick up a thumb drive with those assignments on it.”  

Lawmakers say the diversity of student and community needs prompted them to adopt flexible school requirements amidst the uncertainties of the Covid pandemic. 

“We’re never going to be infallible when it comes to predicting what’s going to happen in 6 months,” said Loundon Del. Subramanyam, “but what we can do is make sure that we’re ready and that we stay vigilant and that the localities have options if things arise.”