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Hopewell Requires Masking, Social Distancing for New School Year

People outside of building
Student mingle around the entrance of Hopewell High School on Monday, the first day of the new school year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Monday was the first day of school for all K-12 students in Hopewell Public Schools. Hopewell is the first in Virginia to resume classes districtwide for the next school year and the first to launch a districtwide year-round school schedule.

A mixture of nervousness and excitement was a common theme among students entering the school building for class, including Jadaysha Watler - who is starting her freshman year at Hopewell High School.

“I’m nervous, I’m scared that I’m going to get lost today because I don’t really know the school like that,” Watler said. “I’m really excited, happy to make friends and meet the teachers.”

Freshman Gabriel Gore is also nervous, but eager to see his friends for the first time in a year.

“With the virtual [classes] I couldn’t give my friends a hug or a high-five,” Gore said.

The district adopted its own COVID protocols ahead of new guidance the state announced last week. Despite the state’s decision not to mandate masks, Hopewell is requiring masks for all students while indoors regardless of their vaccination status. They have special masks for activities like band and have face shields on hand, too, if students and staff prefer to wear them.

“I feel very, very strongly that until our children have access to the vaccine, we’ve gotta be safe,” said Melody Hackney, Superintendent for Hopewell City Public Schools.  “And we’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Hopewell is also requiring social distancing: six feet between staff and students and three feet between students. Students will have assigned seats in the cafeteria, although they get to choose that seat.

“We don’t want to put kids somewhere where they really don’t want to be,” Hopewell High School assistant principal Larry Cherry said. “It’s going to take some getting used to for the kids, because lunch is a time that we know they want to communicate with their friends and socialize. We’re just going to put some structure to it.”

Cherry said the school is holding six 20-minute lunches instead of three longer lunches, so fewer students are in the cafeteria at the same time.  What lunches look like may vary from school to school in the district, with some requiring students to eat lunches in classrooms according to district spokesperson Byron Davis.

“I had it already on the board: wherever you decide to sit today, this is going to be your seat for the semester,” said Tara Henry, a special education teacher at Hopewell High School. “They were just standing for a minute and so I said, ‘OK, I understand you want to wait and see who shows up.’”

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Jay McClain says he expects other local districts to keep a close eye on them while planning for the transition back to in-person classes.

“There’s going to be folks kind of seeing how things are going in Hopewell, and if there are things that are able to apply when they have their students back,” McClain said.

Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify that students may select their assigned seats.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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