Petitions are cropping up from teachers in school systems throughout the state
As school systems try to figure out how to start the upcoming school year, several Virginia educators from across the commonwealth have formed petitions urging school officials to take students, teachers and staff’s physical safety and budget cuts into greater account in their plans to reopen.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced in June that all Virginia K-12 schools will be reopening in three phases this upcoming fall. However, each school district is required to come up with their own reopening plan to match the state’s guidelines in order to ensure the safety of students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many school boards, like Fairfax County Public Schools, have announced tentative reopening plans centred around a combination of in-person instruction and virtual learning with an option of exclusive virtual schooling. Other schools are seeking feedback from their communities and health officials before solidifying and announcing plans at later dates.
“I haven’t seen an in-person plan that I could deem safe,” said Jaleel Jackson, who’s been teaching chorus at Goochland County Public Schools for over a year. “If teachers interact with all of their students, even spread out in one week, then students and teachers have a chance of running into an asymptomatic person.”
Before the pandemic, Jackson said on average that he’d interact with about 100 students a day, not counting his non-teaching duties like supervising lunch every other day and running after school programs which boost the numbers closer to 300.
“It’s shocking that we’re considering many options of opening and in-person instruction without consideration of what may happen to students, teachers and their families,” said Jackson. Things like quarantine leave availability, hazard pay for custodians and potential sanitation routines are some of the few things that GCPS staff hopes will be addressed in the school board’s plan.
Jackson teamed up with other GCPS teachers to create a petition urging Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Raley and school board members take many factors, including impoverished students’ wellbeing, into account when creating a reopening plan for the upcoming fall.
“Impoverished families are the most impacted by COVID-19. Knowing that GCPS serves many students with low socioeconomic status, opening our doors too soon would mean risking the safety of our students’ families, especially those that might not be able to afford or receive adequate healthcare services,” said the petition. They also acknowledged the disproportionate effects COVID-19 in black communities throughout the country. According to data from the 2019 U.S. Census, Goochland County is has a Black population of nearly 16%.
“We need to be prepared to address the trauma of students seeing their family members and teachers falling severely ill, suffering permanent damage, or dying due to COVID-19. Our counselors were spread thinly prior to this year, with a 500-student to counselor ratio at one of our schools,” said the petition.
Previously, the school board released a county-wide Return to School survey asking for feedback on potential reopening plans. The petition acknowledges that the survey is a good first step, but states that other measures need to be taken into account and more research needs to be done before a definitive plan is formed.
The teachers who assembled this petition, led by GCPS teacher Alden Bean Blevens, were inspired by previous petitions set up by Richmond, Hanover and Chesterfield County Schools.
The Virginia Educators United, a grassroots coalition made of educators, parents and community members, are petitioning Northam to keep schools closed until there is at least 24 days of near zero community spread of COVID-19 cases. The petition, started on July 12, is nearly at its goal of 7,500 signatures at the time of writing this article.
On July 14, the Virginia Department of Health reported 72,443 positive cases of COVID-19 in the state, an increase of 801 or 6.8% which is slightly higher than a few weeks ago. Recently, officials with Virginia Beach Public Schools confirmed that a staff member tested positive for the virus at Centreville Elementary School.
While the push for school closure and virtual learning is large, advocates for reopening cite schools as being a fundamental part of children and adolescent development, as well as addressing social and racial inequities.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, students who may be at risk of abuse at home or lack resources available for conducive online learning might not get the help they need if they are not physically present in schools. Problems like abuse, food insecurity, learning disabilities and mental health problems could be exacerbated.
“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020,” said the AAP.
However, while the AAP said that states’ policy should start with the goal of having students having class in-person, they also acknowledge that safety measures must be taken in order to ensure that the coronavirus doesn’t spread any further.
“Policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within schools must be balanced with the known harms to children, adolescents, families, and the community by keeping children at home,” said the AAP.
School boards have also received pressure from the federal level. On Sunday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos directly addressed the Fairfax County public school board’s plan to partially reopen schools. The northern Virginia school system’s plan offers students two options- two days of in-person learning and three days of virtual learning or all virtual learning.
“There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them,” said DeVos to CNN. “Families need for kids to get back in the classroom and it can be done safely. There are guidelines that are very clear and also very acknowledging that situations are going to be different [in different communities].”
However, according to Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand to WJLA, the school district would have to build five separate buildings roughly the size of the Pentagon to keep their 188,000 students the CDC-recommended six feet apart.
DeVos’s comments and subsequent doubling down on the idea to reopen schools fully received backlash nationwide, including Virginia.
“Betsy DeVos called out Fairfax County schools. She doesn’t know us very well. We love our kids and staff and won’t be bullied into blatantly unsafe plans,” said Fairfax County School Board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer in a viral tweet. “No one bullies me into unnecessarily risking lives. If I don’t get re-elected because of it, I’m good.”
Gov. Ralph Northam announced on July 10 that students will not return to classrooms in the fall if the state is unable to remain in Phase 3 of the COVID reopening plan.
“I want as much as anybody to get our kids back in school, but if our numbers don’t stay where they are, if we aren’t able to stay in phase three, then we’re not going to be able to move forward with that,” Northam told NBC 12.