Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam listens as he prepares to speak to a group of volunteers to distribute supplies at health equity community event Tuesday May 12, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam listens as he prepares to speak to a group of volunteers to distribute supplies at health equity community event Tuesday May 12, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia schools will reopen in the fall, but the school day will feel different due to modifications for social distancing.

“The school experience will look very different,” Northam said. “Phases will allow in-person instruction, but slowly. We’ll start with small groups [of students] which will give schools the flexibility they need to respond to the needs of its locality.”

Schools in the state have been closed for almost three months to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Northam explained that the guidelines released today don’t require schools to open their buildings, but will help them implement modified in-person instructional opportunities if they want to. 

Northam’s school reopening plan has three phases, much like his ongoing plans to reopen the state. School districts will begin the summer in Phase One, where instruction is provided remotely for the most part and special education can be done in person, following social distancing guidelines. All athletic and extracurricular activities are not allowed under Phase One. 

In Phase Two, more students will be allowed in the classroom. School districts have to submit their plans for reopening to the state superintendent’s office, and then they will be allowed to offer limited in-person classes for students in pre-K through third grade. Students for whom English is not their first language will also be allowed to have in-person classes. Schools are also expected to continue physical distancing between students in classrooms.

Creating additional space between students in what are often already crowded schools will present a unique challenge. To meet the guidelines, some schools might have to implement a staggered schedule for students, so not all children are in the classroom at the same time. Northam was clear that the guidelines for districts will allow schools to create a plan that best suits their community. 

Phase Three means that all students can come to schools for in-person instruction, but schools will need to maintain physical distancing. 

“For example, schools may have to stagger classes or adopt class schedules that plan in-person and remote learning for students,” Northam said. “Schools will have to stagger the use of communal spaces, and spaces like cafeterias are closed. There should be remote learning and telework options for high risk students staff. There will be daily health screenings and wearing face coverage by staff where physical distancing cannot be maintained.” 

Northam also announced during his remarks that northern Virginia and Richmond will enter Phase Two of their reopening on Friday, menaing restaurants can serve some people inside and gyms can reopen, with restrictions. Northam said health metrics in the state continue to be positive, with a sufficient number of hospital beds available in the state.

Finally, Northam gave an update on his plans to remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. After protests against police brutality sprang up across the state, Northam announced last week that he authorized the removal of the statue. But a Richmond Circuit Court granted a temporary injunction to prohibit the removal of the statue until at least June 18. 

“This is a statute that is divisive. It needs to come down and we are on very solid legal grounds to have it taken down,” Northam said.