Time to Return: Virginia Schools Given Deadline to Finalize Reopening Plans

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By Brian Carlton

February 5, 2021

All Virginia schools must have a reopening plan in place by March 15, Gov. Northam said.

RICHMOND-It’s time to get kids back in the classroom. Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Friday, saying by March 15, all Virginia schools need to have an in-person learning plan in place. 

Now that learning plan can take several forms. It could simply be regular schedule for the rest of the spring semester. It might be extending the spring semester through June or offering an expanded version of summer school. Northam also said adding hours to the current school day was also an option. 

“In person learning won’t look the same for every school division,” Northam said. “[But] we can do this and we must do this. By March 15, I expect every school division to make [an] in-person learning plan.” 

Some school districts, like Hanover County, have provided in-person learning since the school year started in August. Others like Richmond City have already voted to remain virtual this semester.

The numbers have fluctuated over the last few months. Out of 132 school divisions in Sept. 2020, 10 went in-person four or five days a week and 67 practiced a fully-remote model. On Dec. 12, 2020, nine divisions remained in-person, while 52 stayed fully-remote. By Jan. 26, 13 divisions practiced in-person learning and 43 remained fully-remote. That’s based on data from the Virginia Board of Education. 

The governor said he spoke with superintendents before making Friday’s announcement and he expects everyone to follow it. 

“I gave them the plan,” Northam said. “I expect the superintendents and school boards will come on board with this.”

How Do Districts Pay For It?

Extended days or expanded summer school options don’t just take time to plan. They’re also expensive to run. Plus you have to negotiate some sort of payment plan with teachers, who work on 10-month contracts. They’re off during the summer months and can’t be required to work beyond the contracted hours. Despite that, Northam believes teachers will give up part of their summer break to help.  

“I’ve had discussions with a lot of teachers,” Northam said. “I think the majority of our teachers want to be part of the solution. I expect there will be a lot of teachers who will say I want to be back in the classroom.” 

Those teachers who do take part in the summer sessions will receive some type of additional payment, although no one at Friday’s press conference could give an example of what that would look like. Northam and Dr. James Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, said they would use some of the remaining CARES Act funding to provide funding. 

Lane said they can’t estimate yet how much each district will receive because it’s unclear what’s needed. He pointed out that different districts will have different needs. It’s not just because some are rural and some are urban. 

“Some of our school divisions have been open five days a week since August and what their students need to do in terms of extra time will be vastly different than communities that have had no in-person learning until March 15,” Lane said. “Some will do year-round schools, some will do summer schools, Some may add time to their calendar, some may add time to their school day. We’re gonna work with them from now until March 15 and on until the summer.” 

RELATED: Virginia Senate Tells Schools It’s Time to Reopen

Helping Virginia Schools Transition 

To help districts make the transition back to in-person learning, the state is doing several things. First, they’re giving districts some flexibility with the rules. Currently, for example, a long-term substitute teacher can only teach 90 days in a row before they must have a full-time license. With the pandemic, restrictions like that are being lifted. 

Also, the state is assembling a workgroup. Lane said the group, called Virginia Learning, will focus on what’s needed for remediation and recovery. They’ll create a document detailing advice for districts and teachers about how to handle things like student learning loss and educational calendars next year.

Other issues, Northam acknowledged, might take a while to get through. There’s concern over starting back before everyone’s received the vaccine.

In some districts, teachers have started to receive the vaccine. However, it will be at least March before all teachers have been vaccinated. Another issue is a lack of substitute teachers. Districts across the state are struggling to fill substitute spots, which turns into a problem if a teacher has to be quarantined.

With all this going on, Northam accepted that some families just won’t feel comfortable sending their kid to school yet. 

“Not everybody is going to be willing to run through the front door and say we’re back,” Northam said. “I get that. I’m just hopeful if we get factual information, people will realize this is safe. We have the resources we need to do everything in schools. We’ll do everything we can to make it as safe as we can.”

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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