Three topics brought Henrico’s Board of Supervisors and School Board together Tuesday night at Glen Allen High School for a rare joint work session, but the several dozen county residents who came to watch were interested in only one of them – the plans for reopening Henrico’s public schools.
Many of them held signs imploring school system officials to implement a full return to school when the new school year begins Sept. 8.
“Virtual learning without teachers is not an education,” one read, while another proclaimed “Virtual learning widens the inequality gap.”
“Keep kids smart – working moms must go back 2 work,” read another.
Henrico Superintendent Amy Cashwell told board members that while she and others would like students to return to normal as soon as possible, they are planning to follow the school reopening guidelines established by the Virginia Department of Education, which outline in more than 130 detailed pages the safety and social distancing protocol school systems statewide must demonstrate before reopening.
“No one misses our students more than we do,” Cashwell said. “There’s nothing we want more than to have our students back in or school buildings.”
But, said Assistant Henrico County Attorney Megan Watkins, “adhering to the guidelines is the most sound legal position” for the school system.
The insinuation: deviating from those plans could leave the school system or county vulnerable to liability lawsuits if students, employees or others suffer serious medical complications or die from COVID-19.
School officials are considering three tentative options for students who want to return to in-school learning – each a hybrid between in-person and virtual learning. A fourth option – full-time virtual learning – will be an option no matter which in-person options ultimately take effect.
“We have heard from a number of families who have indicated that regardless of the plans, until a vaccine is in place, they’re not comfortable sending their students back to school,” said Cashwell, bringing muffled laughter from a number of those in the pro-reopening crowd and a retort from another audience member who admonished them, saying tersely, “I don’t think that’s funny.”
The hybrid options would divide returning students into two groups, which would alternate between in-person and virtual learning either every day, every week or by splitting days in half (with one group attending in the morning and the other in the afternoon).
Mondays would provide a half-day work day for teachers, the opportunity for extra assistance for students who needed it and, presumably, virtual learning for everyone else. Henrico Schools Chief of Staff Beth Teigen didn’t reference that during her explanation of the three plans during a virtual School Board meeting Thursday, but clarified to the Citizen through HCPS spokesman Andy Jenks Monday that students would be learning all five days of the week.
Confusion about state guidelines
The issue of when, how and to what extent schools should reopen is a contentious one not only in Henrico but statewide – and nationally as well. A number of those who attended Tuesday’s meeting are part of a Facebook group called Back to School Virginia, which has more than 18,500 members, most of whom are working to urge local school divisions to return full-time in the fall.
Three Chopt District School Board member Micky Ogburn, who has been contacted by several of the group members and numerous other constituents, said she believes many citizens do not understand the limitations school systems face in determining their reopening plans.
“We’ve been getting a lot of emails where people assume that it is completely up to School Board to decide whether we go back, how we go back, and what that would look like. . . I think there is a public confusion about that.”
Indeed, discussions in the Facebook group and elsewhere suggest repeatedly that the state’s guidelines are only that – guidelines – and that individual school systems may make their own plans if they’d like.
So, who’s right? That depends upon the perspectives involved.
In Phase III, which is the phase Henrico officials are expecting to be in place when school begins in the fall, the VDOE guidelines do allow in-person instruction for all students as long as social distancing measures are implemented.
In most school districts, though, it would be impossible for students in a normal-sized class to maintain six feet of space between each other and their teacher at all times and impossible to do so on school buses, for example. That’s why many districts are considering the type of hybrid plans Henrico has described, which would allow distancing since at most only half the students would be in school at any given time.
Cashwell conceded that the state’s guidelines – which also reflect guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Virginia Department of Health and which urge local districts to seek the legal advice of their own attorneys – are complicated.
“We continue to work through our understanding of that document, interpreting that with the guidance of our legal team and asking clarifying questions of the Virginia Department of Education and of the Virginia Health Department on a regular basis as we seek to fully understand the guidelines as they’re written,” she said.
Brookland District School Board member Kristi Kinsella asked Cashwell directly whether she anticipated a full five-day week for students.
“We anticipate our students learning five days a week, and as many days as we can have them in our school buildings…” Cashwell said, the rest of her response drowned out by hollers and boos from the audience, prompting an admonishment from Three Chopt District Supervisor Tommy Branin. (Public comments are not accepted at work sessions.)
“Certainly, our aim is for as much of a full return as possible,” Cashwell concluded.
The process of determining what a return to school should look like involves a number of pieces, Varina District School Board member Alicia Atkins said.
“We do want our kids back in schools, but we don’t want to lay our heads down at night knowing that one child died because we didn’t take our time doing everything that we could.”
Child deaths from COVID-19 are exceedingly rare, but health officials believe children can be silent carriers of the virus and potentially spread it to adults – including some who could suffer serious complications or even death.
Varina Supervisor Tyrone Nelson told Cashwell to and School Board members to take their time arriving at a decision.
“We’ve never been here before,” he said. “This is tough on everyone. I’m hearing from parents who are saying that they just don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school every day. But I also know there are parents who have to return to work.
“This is an important decision that is going to shape us for awhile. Do what you can to try to make the best decision and to allow for some space for everybody.”
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