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Virginia releases plan for phased reopening of schools

The state superintendent said education will likely be a combination of in-person and remote learning.

FAIRFAX, Va. — All Virginia schools will reopen to in-person learning this fall, but at a phased-in approach, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday.

Northam said districts will open in three phases, with hybrid learning models as the standard.

"Closing our schools was a necessary step to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of staff, students, and our communities," Northam said in a press release. "Our schools have risen to the occasion and found ways to provide remote learning opportunities, keep students engaged, continue serving meals for children who otherwise would have gone hungry, and support students and families through an immensely challenging time. Resuming in-person instruction is a high priority, but we must do so in a safe, responsible, and equitable manner that minimizes the risk of exposure to the virus and meets the needs of the Virginia students who have been disproportionately impacted by lost classroom time."

Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said in-person instruction is most necessary for special education students, English language learners, young children, and other vulnerable students who depend upon the structure and in-person connection of classroom learning.

The state's guidelines said its plan is aligned with existing Forward Virginia phases, and schools' progress will depend upon public health data as has been the case with the reopening plan. 

The VDOE said all schools should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance throughout every stage of the reopening process.

Phase one is effective immediately, according to the guidelines, but Northam said in a press conference that most schools are ready to begin phase two now.

Northam was also clear that the plan is not a mandate, but guidelines on which districts should base their reopening plans.

As students return to classrooms, the governor said schools will need to implement physical distancing measures, like maintaining six feet between desks and work stations. He also suggested staggering schedules or blending in-person and remote learning.

In phase one, the guidelines say that remote learning will still be dominant, but school districts will be able to provide in-person instruction to students with disabilities. Northam said child care for working families may also still continue to operate in schools.

The plan suggests limiting the number of students per bus to 10, with the physical distance between children, perhaps sitting one child a seat every other row. It also says that classroom capacity should not exceed 10 students.

In phase two, schools will be allowed to start offering in-person instruction for preschool through third grade, as well as for English learner students, because of the particular challenges they face with remote learning.

The guidelines say that summer camps at schools can be offered to kids of all ages, with proper safety measures in place.

At school, the state suggests limiting large gatherings like recess or assemblies to 50 people and only holding them indoors if necessary.

In phase three, all students can begin to receive in-person instruction, with strict social distancing measures in place. The guidelines say that remote learning options should be made available to students and staff at higher risk of developing a severe illness.

When it comes to athletics and extracurriculars, they will be allowed to resume staring in phase two with strict physical distancing measures.

Extracurriculars and athletics can start to resume, as long as physical distancing guidelines are followed.

The Virginia Department of Health recommends that no youth recreational or school sports competitions happen unless distance can be maintained at all times. If teams decide to hold competitions, the state asks that players and spectators maintain 10 feet of physical distance at all times and disinfect shared items between uses.

The guidelines say that the total number of attendees at outdoor competitions cannot exceed 50 percent venue capacity or 50 people. Indoor competitions, it says, should be even more limited, at 30 percent, including participants. The VDH recommends that no spectators be allowed inside, save parents supervising their children.

The guidelines said more guidance for phase three will come later.

The State Health Commissioner issued a public health emergency order that requires public and private school districts to submit a plan for mitigating the health risk of COVID-19 to the Department of Education before entering phases two and three.

Some of the steps the order wants districts to outline involve policies for the use of face coverings, health screenings of staff and students, physical distancing measures, enhanced hygiene practices for staff and students, isolation of symptomatic cases, and cleaning and disinfecting procedures.

The state guidelines said that public schools will also have to submit plans for new instruction in 2020-2021 regardless of the phase or operational status of the school. 

That plan must include strategies to address learning lost due to the Spring 2020 school closures and plans for fully remote instruction should public health conditions require it.

The state also released a list of CDC guidelines that school districts are required to follow in all phases:

  • Provide remote learning exceptions and teleworking options for students and staff at high risk.
  • Conduct daily health screenings for staff and students upon arrival.
  • Staff and students should use cloth face coverings when physical distance cannot be maintained.
  • Staff should wear cloth face coverings when they can’t be at least six feet away.

The plan said that public health is still developing guidance on contact investigation and outbreak responses in schools.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers conducted a poll asking members if they feel safe returning to school in the fall. Out of the 575 who responded, 74% said they would not feel comfortable returning, expressing serious concerns with staff and student safety.

Out of the quarter that said "yes" or "maybe," the federation said many said they would need safety protocols in a place like PPE and social distancing to feel safe.

One FCPS teacher, who serves on the board of the federation and is part of the governor's return to school workgroup, David Walrod, said he is eager to go back, but concerned about some of the guidelines.

“Academically, I think it’s exactly the right move," Walrod said. "Because I know students with disabilities right now, they’re not really getting the type of service that we know as educators they need… On the flip side of that coin, they’re also the students that have the greatest difficulty maintaining social distancing.”

His biggest concerns are determining who is going to provide hand sanitizer and PPE.

“The idea of maintaining six feet of social distance for students in a classroom, that feels like something that’s going to be really trick to accomplish," Walrod said. "Plus just general size of classrooms.”

The federation said FCPS will present its proposal to the school board on Monday.

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