‘We want to be there if it’s safe’: Virginia teachers still have questions about the state’s plan to reopen schools

By: - June 9, 2020 5:46 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam answered questions from reporters about how the state will and won’t enforce a requirement that people wear masks indoors. (May 28, 2020 — Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As schools in Virginia prepare to reopen, some teachers still have questions on how the state’s new guidelines will be implemented.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that K-12 education will follow a phased reopening similar to the rest of the state, with the hope of slowly reintroducing in-person instruction for all students.

“To be clear, all Virginia schools will be open for students next year, but the school experience will look very different,” he said at a news briefing. The state’s guidance outlines three distinct phases that will match the rest of the community. In other words, if a region is already in Phase Two at the start of the fall session, schools will reopen in Phase Two as well. Each phase gradually eases current requirements for remote learning, with all students back in the classroom by Phase Three — though social distancing requirements will still be in place.

Both Richmond and Northern Virginia, which reopened more slowly than the rest of the state, are permitted to move into Phase Two this Friday. That makes it likely that most school districts will move into their second stage of reopening by the time many summer classes begin in mid- to late-June. 

Under the state’s Phase Two guidelines, schools will be permitted to offer in-person instruction to students in preschool through third grade, and summer camp programs for students of all ages. Extracurricular activities will also be allowed “if social distancing mitigation strategies can be implemented,” according to the guidance. Some athletic teams can resume practices and drills as long as contact is limited and distance is maintained.

The state’s Phase Three guidelines for schools allow in-person instruction for all students, but also require administrators to implement social distancing measures that adhere to recommendations from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Those include maintaining at least six feet of physical distance between students and staff “to the greatest possible extent” and limiting outdoor activities to 50 people or less.

While Northam described students and faculty as “eager” to return to the classroom, some educators have expressed reservations about resuming in-person courses, especially without clear instructions from administrators on how the state’s guidance, which offers wide flexibility to individual school districts, will be implemented.

Last month, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers — a union representing educators from the state’s largest school district — sent a letter to the county’s school board asking for schools to remain closed “until health experts deem it safe.” 

“There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening schools,” the letter reads. “We should not necessarily expect every FCPS school to reopen at the same time.”

Resources are a particular concern, said David Walrod, a FCFT member and learning disabilities teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary School who serves on the governor’s COVID-19 Education Work Group. While the state’s guidance tasks schools with following CDC safety recommendations, Walrod said he hasn’t received any reassurances from the school district that they’ll provide materials such as hand sanitizer or face masks, which teachers are required to wear if they can’t maintain at least six feet of distance.

“I love FCPS, but the school district has never once bought me a box of tissues,” he added. “So, will I have hand sanitizer to give to my kids, or will it turn into something I have to buy myself?”

The federal CARES Act provided relief funding for local schools through a Title I-driven formula, which considers the proportion of low-income families within districts, Virginia Superintendent James Lane said Tuesday. More than $214 million was distributed through the first federal stimulus act, including allocations of more than $10 million for some of the state’s highest-poverty school systems.

Lane said that Northam will announce additional federal funding (in this case, less than $100 million) for school districts in the next few days, but local educators say there’s still ongoing concerns about operation costs. Planned budget increases, which would have restored school funding to pre-Recession levels, are currently on hold as the state reassesses the fiscal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Northam said Tuesday that he’s likely to call legislators to Richmond in “early August” for a special session to address the state’s budget. Until then, some of the General Assembly’s biggest priorities — including a 2 percent teachers’ raise, more funding for school counselors, and millions for some of the state’s poorest school districts — remain up in the air.

Increased funding is going to be critical as local school districts work to implement the state’s guidance, said Ben Kiser, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. “We’re very grateful there’s some relief through the CARES Act, but it’s nowhere near what superintendents are going to need to maintain the level of services that parents and students are used to,” he added.

Kiser described the state’s guidelines as a “first step” as educators and administrators work to put them into practice. Funding will be a major consideration as school districts work to source personal protective equipment and shoulder higher personnel costs. There’s also still a question of how schools will introduce new coursework to students, including curriculum lost during the spring closure. The state’s guidance requires schools to submit plans for introducing new instruction — including contingencies for another shutdown that would require transitioning back to remote learning — but doesn’t currently offer suggestions on how to do it.

Even the state’s social distancing guidelines could be problematic, Walrod said. As a special education teacher, he’s concerned that his students — some of whom have what he described as “severe toileting needs” or cognitive disabilities that make it difficult to understand the restrictions — won’t be able to maintain six feet of space. And schools are expected to maintain distance between students regardless of their capacity or the size of their classrooms.

“I don’t know any teacher who could possibly say they could maintain six feet of distance at all times,” Walrod said. “In my 10 years of teaching, there hasn’t been a 10-minute block where I’ve been 6 feet away from all my students.”

Lane acknowledged the limitations, pointing to sections of the guidelines that require schools to stagger classes and communal spaces if necessary. He added that some districts plan to allow half their students on campus on a daily or weekly basis and facilitate remote learning for the other half. All schools are required to submit social distancing plans to the Virginia Department of Education before entering both Phase 1 and Phase 2. 

Walrod said that he, like many other teachers he’s spoken with, is ready to return back to the classroom as long as it doesn’t present a risk for him or his students. 

“We want to be there if it’s safe,” he added. “I just hope that whatever the state is considering, they’re doing it with science in mind.”

UPDATE: This story was updated to include comments from the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and to clarify the distribution of federal funding to local school districts.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.