VEA urges that classrooms close across state as COVID-19 spikes
Restrictions that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday to curb spiking cases of COVID-19 stopped short of classrooms, a decision the Virginia Education Association panned moments after he addressed the commonwealth.
The group, which represents more than 40,000 school workers, is calling for learning to go virtual in school systems where classrooms remain open through at least mid-January as cases continue to climb.
“Over the past week, Virginia has averaged 3,521 COVID-19 cases per day, an increase of 41 percent from the average two weeks earlier,” association President James Fedderman said in a statement.
“The numbers don’t lie, and the human toll behind each of those numbers demand that we pause inperson learning until the situation rights itself.”
Northam on Thursday restricted public gatherings to 10 people and imposed a midnightto-5 a.m. curfew. According to the Virginia Department of Education, 98 of the state’s 132 school districts have classrooms open, whether fully inperson or partially, in hybrid configurations.
“This was an opportunity today for the governor to do a soft reset to allow people to self-quarantine,” Fedderman said in an interview. “Those governing our public schools owe it to our students and their families and communities and our hard-working teachers and support professionals to minimize the exposure and not compound them.”
When asked if he would consider closing schools statewide, Northam said in a statement that school systems are too diverse for a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“As I have said since the beginning of this pandemic, we have enormous diversity of school districts within our Commonwealth— a one-sizefits-all solution simply does not make sense,” he stated.
“I’ve worked closely with the Virginia Department of Health to ensure school districts have the most up-to-date health data for their communities, and I trust they will continue to make the best decisions for the health and safety of their students, teachers, and staff.”
Area school systems have scaled back in-person plans as cases have risen. Henrico County Public Schools students were poised to return to buildings beginning Nov. 30; those plans are delayed until 2021. In Chesterfield County, the school system has reversed course after bringing students back in cohorts. Richmond Public Schools voted Monday to remain virtual through the remainder of the academic year.
When it comes to reopening, school systems have to weigh students’ mental health and physical safety. Health officials have reported increased anxiety and suicidal ideations among children, which they relate to the closure of schools.
“It’s a difficult balance that schools are being asked to strike,” said Dr. Melissa Viray, deputy director of the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts. “When we see cases in schools, we’re not seeing a lot of transmission within the school, for the most part. ... We know that it’s important for them to be in school.
We also know that different schools have different abilities to be able to adhere to all of these requirements to keep people safe.”
Also on Thursday, the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School Board gave the school’s administration permission to work toward hybrid instruction by February . The school’s Facebook page said leaders will re-evaluate the decision in January, based on COVID numbers.
In Hanover County, which opened its classrooms to students Sept. 8, Superintendent Michael Gill said that in-person learning is at risk of being suspended. The school district recently has seen more cases among essential employees like bus drivers, custodial staff, and food service workers. Without them, Gill said, in-person instruction might have to cease.
“The increase in COVID-19 cases in the school division is starting to interfere with our capacity to continue providing in-person instruction due to staffing concerns,” Gill said in a note Tuesday to families. “To be frank, we need your help to keep our schools open, especially as we enter flu season and the holidays.”
Health officials have reported increased anxiety and suicidal ideations among children, which they relate to the closure of schools.