Contributed photo - Rita Browning teaches math class at Laurel Park Middle School.
Contributed photo - Rita Browning teaches math class at Laurel Park Middle School.

Students and staff wear face masks for summer school, thanks to an order from the state health department.

RICHMOND – Most people tossed out their face masks after Gov. Ralph Northam let his emergency order expire June 30. No order, no reason to wear the masks, right? It’s not that simple for anyone in a Virginia school. Teachers, students and staff all fall under a different rule.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver issued a public health order on July 1. The order requires that people age five and older wear masks in indoor instructional settings until July 25. That includes everyone, regardless of your vaccine status. In Virginia summer schools, face masks are part of the supply list this year.

The Virginia Department of Education also followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that schools continue using COVID-19 prevention strategies, including universal masking.

Keeping K-12 schools open for in-person summer instruction – while reducing the likelihood of school-related COVID-19 transmission and outbreaks – was a priority, said Kevin Blackstone. He works as executive director of the office of communication at VDOE.

“Virginia has made tremendous statewide progress in vaccination, however, the school setting brings together large groups of individuals who are not fully vaccinated,” Blackstone said. “[Teens] between the ages of 12 and 15 only became eligible for vaccination on May 12, 2021, and students under age 12 – which typically corresponds to students in sixth grade and below – are not yet eligible for vaccination.”

That means that children pre-K through the first year of middle school remain unvaccinated. Until all children reach vaccine eligibility and a large percentage of them receive the vaccine, Blackstone noted masks will be an important mitigation strategy for the community. 

Summer School’s in Session

In some portions of the state, summer school numbers remained fairly steady compared to past years.

That’s the case for Henry County Public Schools, according to the division’s communications director Monica Hatchett. The division welcomed 1,432 elementary and 1,223 secondary students to its June programs and expects a similar number this month.

“This is slightly higher than in past years,” Hatchett said.

In Roanoke City, enrollment came close to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 3,000 students enrolled in summer programs. 

“Our K-8 summer program is called RCPS+, which is designed to provide motivational and hands-on activities in reading, math and STEAM. We are focusing on learning recovery and acceleration, meaning we are working toward mastery of prior-year standards and content as well as providing opportunities for enrichment,” said Claire Mitzel, coordinator of communications and public relations for Roanoke City Public Schools. “At the high school level, we offer traditional summer school focused on credit recovery as well as Virtual Academy Summer Enrichment classes.”

Summer School Surge

Virginia Beach City Public Schools offered more summer school opportunities this year than in the history of the division, making the staffing and enrollment numbers higher than in any other year.

This year, approximately 1,150 staff and 8,700 students arrived at summer school. That’s compared to 3,855 students last year and 5,062 in 2019.

“For elementary students each week in July, literacy and numeracy lessons aligned to key grade level concepts are posted and available to currently enrolled VBCPS students,” said Sondra Woodward, public relations coordinator with Virginia Beach City Public Schools. “These optional lessons review and reinforce previously taught material to give our students a learning boost before they begin the 2021-22 school year.”

Christopher Vail, director of communications for Chesapeake Public Schools, also noted an increase in enrollment.

In 2019, a total of 3,930 attended summer school, followed by 1,748 in 2020. This year, 6,971 students enrolled.

The influx of summer learners created a staffing shortage for the district, with seasonal positions still available.

“Filling all summer school positions this year has been more difficult than in years past. The school district has offered teachers a $35 hourly rate and offered all positions an incentive of an additional $75 a day worked during summer school,” Vial said. “We are still in need of custodians, school nutrition workers and school bus drivers.”

Danielle Pierce, communications and media relations coordinator in the office of engagement for Richmond Public Schools, noted that the division’s summer program hadn’t started yet. School staff will welcome students starting Monday.

What If We Forget Face Masks?

It happens. Homework remains at home. A lunchbox stays on the bus. A jacket stays in the car. Keeping track of everything a child needs for a school day doesn’t always go as planned.

Just shy of a line in the dress code, face masks are mandatory accessories in Virginia schools.

But what happens if a child forgets his or her mask? Do they have to go home or have a parent bring a face covering to school?

The five districts Dogwood spoke with each expressed compassion for their students.

In Roanoke City, every school in the district kept masks handy in case students forgot.

Richmond Public Schools offered masks not only to students, but also to staff and visitors if they didn’t have one.

Vial noted that if a child forgets a face covering in Chesapeake, they receive a disposable mask from the school.

“All students and staff are expected to wear masks indoors in any instructional setting,” Vial said. “Medical exemptions will certainly be considered if they apply.” 

In Henry County, the division keeps masks on hand for students, staff and visitors who need one.

“In the event that the school runs out of masks, extras are provided by our school nurse coordinator,” Hatchett said.

 Virginia Beach City Public Schools also kept masks at their schools for those in need.

Face Masks Next School Year?

To be clear, the current order doesn’t impact the upcoming school year. With the majority of Virginia schools starting their regular 180-day schedule in August, students and staff alike await guidance.

Blackstone expressed the fleeting nature of the three-and-a-half-week order. He also hinted toward additional measures.

“The requirement is intended to be temporary in nature, and separate guidance is forthcoming for the 2021-2022 school year,” Blackstone said.

Meanwhile, divisions across the commonwealth await their next steps.

“[Henry County Public Schools] is awaiting guidance from VDOE and VDH as to what the fall will bring,” Hatchett said. “We plan to follow their direction, as we have through the pandemic, to ensure all members of our school community remain as safe as possible while teaching and learning.”

The Virginia Beach City Public Schools division also awaited guidance before moving forward.

“We have not made any decisions about the new school year yet. The health commissioner’s recent order expires at the end of this month, and we’re anticipating further guidance from the governor’s office and the Virginia Department of Education,” Woodward said. “We will continue to consult with our local health department and health officials as we make plans for the 2021-22 school year.”

Chesapeake Public Schools plans to evaluate information and guidance from the VDOE, VDH, CDC and the School Health Advisory Board and noted no finalized plans.

Roanoke City Public Schools noted that they plan to provide families with more information as soon as they receive it from either the governor or VDH.

Richmond City Public Schools plans to combine the use of health and safety measures including wearing masks, performing daily symptom checks, social and physical distancing, contact tracing and additional measures for the 2021 summer and fall classes.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com