Virginia schools will be opening on a regular schedule this fall. So why do politicians say differently? It seems they forgot about SB 1303. 

COLLINSVILLE – Five days. That’s how long a typical school week will be this fall in Virginia. Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most Virginia schools closed their doors. From elementary to high school, students across the state switched to virtual learning.

By the end of the 2020-21 school year, however, the doors reopened. Each district brought students back to in-person classes. Since April, we’ve repeatedly heard the untrue claim that school districts are closed. Parents lined up at school board meetings, demanding that doors open this fall. As a result, politicians made it part of their stump speeches and Twitter posts, promising to reopen schools if elected. In all of this, it appears everyone forgot about SB 1303.

Earlier this year, Virginia’s General Assembly approved Senate Bill 1303. The bipartisan bill requires all school divisions to offer in-person instruction for students this fall. It also orders divisions to meet at least the minimum number of required instructional hours. That’s 180 days or 990 clock hours. And while some lawmakers may have forgotten, quite a few from both sides voted for it. The bill passed the Virginia House 88-9 and the Senate 36-3.

Once Gov. Northam signed it into law, the Virginia Department of Education followed suit, setting up plans for this fall.

Excitement and a Little Trepidation 

The return to a five-day school week means a return to a pre-pandemic school day schedule.

In Henry County, that change raised mixed reactions from the community.

“Many seem eager to return to pre-pandemic conditions,” said Monica Hatchett, Henry County Public Schools communications director. “We do have some school community members who still have concerns as well. Respecting both perspectives is our priority.”

William Bates, chief academic officer at Falls Church City Public Schools, said that individuals in the area expressed excitement over the return to the pre-panemic schedule.

“Our parents, students and staff are excited to begin the year with a sense of normalcy, including returning to school five days per week in-person,” Bates said. “It has been a long time coming.”

Despite mixed reactions across the state, both divisions there’s benefits to a five-day week for students.

“We are excited to welcome back students to in-person learning five days per week. This model will allow teachers to form stronger relationships with their students and support the social connections that students need to make with each other,” Bates said. “Students can engage with the teacher and each other in hands-on exploratory learning. In-person learning allows teachers to be in a better position to differentiate instruction and respond to individual student learning needs.”

In Henry County, Hatchett relayed that some students lack access to reliable internet connections, making virtual studies difficult. She noted that in-person instruction ensures equitable instruction for all of the division’s students. 

“It is also so important for teachers to have face-to-face engagement with students to build relationships as well,” Hatchett said.

Return to the Field

The return to school traditionally means a return to student sports and extracurricular activities.

With some COVID-19 restrictions still in place at schools across the commonwealth, some districts waited to finalize their seasonal offerings.  

“We are still awaiting final guidance from the state on extracurricular activities, but we anticipate a return to traditional format,” Hatchett said.

Although the division hesitated on final plans, Hatchett noted benefits after school activities traditionally offered students.  

“Many students grow and thrive exponentially because of extracurricular activities because they are able to excel in an area of their passion and talent,” Hatchett said. “This often also spills over into deeper focus in the classroom as well.”

Bates also expressed the importance of school-based development outside of the classroom. 

“School is not just about academics. There is extensive research on the physical, social-emotional and mental health benefits of participating in sports and extracurriculars,” Bates said. “We want students to be full participants in the school community. Extracurricular activities support the development of the whole child.”

This fall in Falls Church City, it’s game-on.

“We will continue to offer students opportunities to participate in sports and extracurricular and co-curricular activities throughout the entire school year, including the fall sports season,” Bates said. “We will follow CDC guidance on social distancing, mask-wearing and capacity limits.”

A Virtual Component For Virginia Schools

Charles Pyle, director of media relations at the VDOE, noted that more than a dozen school divisions chose to branch out. In addition to offering traditional in-person learning opportunities, the divisions will offer their own virtual approach. 

“So far, we have received notifications from 15 school divisions that they are creating or operating their own full-time virtual instruction program for the 2021-2022 school year,” Pyle said.

The schools will offer programs utilizing their own resources, rather than a pre-existing program like Virtual Virginia. 

In Henry County, students in certain grades have that opportunity.

“Our middle and high school students have the opportunity to participate in our virtual academy – taught by our teachers and using our current curriculum,” Hatchett said. “We also have some students K-12 who are electing to participate in Virtual Virginia.”

In Falls Church City, the district will offer two virtual opportunities, dependent on grade level. 

“Virtual Virginia will be the online option for students who elect to remain virtual. But at the high school, we will also continue to offer our hybrid learning program which offers some core curriculum and elective courses for students to choose from. These are asynchronous courses that are taught by an FCCPS teacher. The high school hybrid learning program’s curriculum is developed by FCCPS teachers,” Bates said.

If a student selects a virtual option for the 2021-22 school year, they will meet the same requirements as in-person students to move on to the next grade level at the end of the year. 

“Virtual programs offered by school divisions must cover the state-required content of the Standards of Learning, and students learning virtually must take the SOL assessments required for their grade level or course,” Pyle said.

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

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