Virginia Schools Make Plans to Reopen, Possibly Expand Summer Programs

By Amie Knowles

February 5, 2021

Districts are looking at different options to reopen classes

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam took officials in Virginia schools by surprise on Friday. Prior to his press conference, the Commonwealth crawled with rumors that the governor planned to mandate an extended school year.

What actually happened was neither an extension to the calendar or a mandate.

Instead, Northam directed schools across the state to develop an in-person learning plan by March 15. 

He noted the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 as divisions initially planned for the 2020-21 school year. However, with more data available, Northam pushed for a change. 

“There were no simple or easy decisions, not for school administrators, teachers or parents, but we’ve seen more data now,” Northam said. “And it suggests that schools don’t have the kind of rapid spread that we’ve seen in some other congregate settings. That tells us it’s time to find a path forward to in-person learning.”

For some districts, however, it’s simply re-enforcing what they were already working on.

County District Moves Forward

“I am glad that the governor’s announcement supports actions we have already taken,” said Henry County School Board member Teddy Martin. “We proactively set a plan to return to in-person hybrid instruction for March 10.”

Martin, who also serves as president of the Virginia School Board Association, pointed to improving COVID-19 case numbers as one of the factors behind the decision. Also, the ability to vaccinate staff members helped. By March 10, all teachers who want to receive the vaccine will have been given both doses.

Henry County Public Schools planned their second opening of the school year on March 10, weeks prior to Northam’s announcement. The district originally transitioned to in-person learning for just shy of one month in the fall, but then switched back to virtual as COVID-19 cases piled up.

In accordance with the past few years, HCPS’s school year ends in May before Memorial Day.

“Obviously any time you transition, so after after spring break, there’s a certain amount of just reviewing procedures with students. All of those procedures will be part of what we do when we first come back,” said Monica Hatchett, the district’s director of communications. “But certainly, instruction will continue. They’ve been learning content all along, but certainly we know there are some students that we will be looking to address gaps for. So that will begin right away when they’re back in-person as well.” 

In-Person Learning

Moving toward an in-person model for weeks, Northam noted that he issued guidance to school divisions on planning a safe return to that learning format.

“We didn’t say, ‘Throw open the doors five days a week, starting tomorrow.’ We said, ‘Here are the steps that you need to take. You can start with the students who most need that in-person instruction.’ But we also said, ‘This needs to happen,’” Northam said. “And today, I’m saying it needs to start by March the 15th. By that day, I expect every school division to make in-person learning options available in accordance with the guidance. They also need to plan for summer school options.”

The governor noted that the challenge was not mandatory, but stressed that it be an option. 

That means that students have around 11 weeks of the school year scheduled for in-person learning, compared to about 11 months in a virtual setting.

Unintended Consequences

Northam championed the children, but noted the various struggles they faced during the pandemic.

“My fellow pediatricians say they’re seeing increases in behavioral problems, mental health issues and even increases in substance abuse among their young patients,” Northam said. “They’re writing more prescriptions, such as antidepressants and stimulants. And that’s just not a good direction for us to keep going. And we’re also seeing a decline in academic performance.”

Combatting the issues, a viable response could involve getting students back into school buildings. 

“I know this has been hard on everyone. It has been a school year like no other. It’s been hard on children and it’s been hard on our teachers,” Northam said. “But we also know this plain fact: children learn better in classrooms and that’s where they need to be.”

City District Plans School Reopening

Martinsville City Public Schools took a firm stance against the coronavirus early-on. Once the city schools closed in March 2020, they promised to take the safety and health of their community into consideration before reopening. 

“What we’re doing, there’s no guesswork,” said Dr. Zeb Talley, MCPS division superintendent. “We believe that staff safety, the safety of our students and their parents and grandparents at home, is paramount. We believe it’s paramount. And I’m fortunate to work with a board that feels that safety is the most important thing. So yes, we has been very firm against it.”

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t plan to comply with the governor’s wishes. MCPS staff recently started receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Those that elected to get the vaccine should receive their second dose around the first of March. 

That gives MCPS an option to have a flexible multi-building opening. 

“Everything we’ve had to do this year has had to be flexible because of the uncertainty,” Talley said. “So the plan is to bring in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.”

The division also plans to host English as a Second Language students and special needs students within the first round of pupils reentering the buildings. 

“From that point, we’ll look and see which other students we can get in,” Talley said. “So that’s the plan.”

He also noted that the plan is not rigid and is subject to “change if things change.”

Virtual Successes 

While some individuals pushed for school buildings to reopen, others had success with the virtual format.

“All of our kids won’t have learning loss. A lot of our kids are excelling,” Talley said “We’re coming off of four years of total accreditation. I’m not looking for all of our students to be failing.”

In Henry County, some families preferred the virtual format.

“We also know that there are families who still have concerns, so that’s why we’re still continuing to offer virtual for anyone who wants it for the remainder of the year,” Hatchett said. “We’ve also learned from this school year there are students who do very well in that environment. So we’re actually offering [a] virtual academy starting next year as well.”

Students may sign up for the virtual academy if they feel like they learn better from home or if their family situation warrants that learning format. 

The In-Person Model 

For those who do struggle with the online format, the switch in March could come as a welcomed change.

“The thing is, it will give us an opportunity to greater assess what they need. We’ve been assessing, but to have them in person, it will give us an idea also about how much in-depth summer [school] will need to be. And so it is very vital that we try to get them all back in before the school year ends. We’re going to try to make that effort,” Talley said. “The governor requested that we try to get in as many as we can. And we will try to get as many as we can with some amount of in-person instruction. Again, it may not be five days a week, but we’re going to try to give all of them some.”

Northam pressed for the change while also thanking teachers for their dedication and flexibility over the past 11 months.

“In-person learning won’t look the same for every school division. And it won’t look the same as school did a year ago before this pandemic began,” Northam said. “But we need to make a start. We can do this and we must do this.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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