‘Hung out to dry’: School boards, not the state, are deciding how to reopen, sparking fierce local debates

By: - October 28, 2020 12:08 am

A school bus in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

A little over a week after Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans for a phased reopening of Virginia’s K-12 schools, Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence wrote a frustrated email to a top official at the state’s Department of Education.

“This variance option — and the ongoing statement that all parents have to do is lobby their school board and superintendent if they want us to vary from the state plan — has injected politics into this decision,” he wrote to James Lane, the state superintendent of public instruction, forwarding an angry email he received from a faculty member at a local private school.

“Without context, we are going to be hung out to dry here,” Spence added.

For Virginia Beach and other districts across the state, the issue at hand was Virginia’s phased guidance for K-12 schools, a 13-page document that asked local divisions to draft and submit reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year. But it left the final decision on whether to open classrooms for in-person instruction “squarely in the hands of local school boards,” according to an introductory letter signed by Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver.

Emails between VDOE and local school divisions, obtained by the Mercury through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that politicization of school reopenings and uncertainty over how local administrators should interpret a slew of public health data were concerns from the beginning of the state’s plan. Administrators found themselves on the front lines of a contentious policy debate, with health officials often unwilling to weigh in conclusively. Virginia Beach, for example, asked its local health department whether the district should deviate from the state’s guidance.

“They told us they wouldn’t make a recommendation,” Spence sharply informed Lane.

Meanwhile, teachers begged the department to come up with a comprehensive statewide plan for how individual schools should handle COVID-19 cases. Some working parents pushed for reopening, while other families expressed serious reservations about returning without an effective vaccine.

More than four months after the guidance was released, it’s a debate that’s only grown more contentious. Most of Virginia has been in Phase Three of Northam’s statewide reopening plan since July 1 — a stage that allows schools to begin offering in-person instruction for all students, according to the K-12 guidelines. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the fall, more divisions are eying a gradual return to the classroom, with some already bringing students and teachers back.

Not everyone is happy about it. After Fairfax County, one of the state’s largest school divisions, announced plans to bring thousands of students back to schools over the next few months, its local teacher’s union distributed a letter asking to keep classes virtual for the remainder of the school year. Newport News delayed plans for a phased return after another local teacher’s group pushed back against the decision, saying teachers weren’t given advance notice or an opportunity to provide feedback.

“Most parents found out that this was happening before the teachers, and I think that’s probably what was most upsetting, that there was little to no communication,” said Chanel Hurt, an orchestra teacher at two local middle schools and organizer with the group Newport News Educators United. “To be working so hard right now and to find out this kind of information from a third party — it just leads to feelings of betrayal and disappointment and mistrust.”

Still, not everyone in the community shares the teachers’ concerns. A local journalist with The Daily Press reported that one man yelled “Go back to work” at faculty protesting before a Newport News School Board meeting. Hurt said she’s also heard boos from the side of the road and seen negative comments in response to some of the group’s Facebook posts. 

The same debate is playing out across other local school divisions. But with administrators often facing pressure from the loudest voices on both sides of the divide, some parents say it can feel like there’s little room for compromise. And with many districts offering an all-virtual option to families — even if classrooms are open for face-to-face instruction — it can feel especially vexing for parents struggling with remote learning. 

“What frustrates me is there can be a dismissiveness to any kind of nuanced conversation,” said Elliot Haspel, whose daughter is enrolled in kindergarten at Barack Obama Elementary School in Richmond. “Basically it’s all or nothing — like, we need to have a vaccine or we’re not going back.”

Haspel added that Richmond Public Schools is still facing very real concerns from families of color, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus both in Richmond and across the state. But he also worries about parents who don’t have the option to work at home with their children, or other families with young students — like his daughter — who have been trying to learn essential skills like reading through a computer screen.

“I’m strongly in favor of carefully getting young children back in person,” Haspel said. “But what’s interesting is that we’re having very different conversations here in Richmond than they are in surrounding counties.” 

The district’s “ReopenWithLove” plan calls for full virtual learning until at least mid-January. Neighboring Chesterfield County, on the other hand, reopened classrooms to young learners in mid-October. Henrico County voted last week to bring some students back by the end of November.

Students, like these children at Watkins Elementary, have returned to schools in Chesterfield County. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

Following the data

Hovering over many of the decisions has been widespread uncertainty over the health implications of resuming in-person classes. Throughout March and much of the spring, there was a lack of information on how COVID-19 spread, how transmissible it was between different age groups and how schools might contribute to infections, said Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. It didn’t help that President Donald Trump began pushing schools to reopen in July right before a nationwide spike in cases — strengthening the sense, for some, that schools were being pressured to admit students before it was safe to do so.

But the notion that reopened school buildings will become major contributors to new infections is increasingly being challenged, especially given the relatively low rate of infections in states such as Texas and Florida, which resumed in-person instruction in August. A recent study from Yale showed that child care was not associated with a greater risk of spreading the virus from students to adults, which many pediatricians are citing as another indicator that classes — especially for young children — can safely resume with the proper safety protocols.

“I would say the plurality of medical experts probably agree at this point that provided we can stick to public health practices — and with rigorous testing and contact tracing — schools can safely reopen,” said Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious disease expert at the University of Virginia. The Virginia Department of Health launched its own K-12 reporting dashboard last week, with outbreaks currently only reported at two schools across the state.

Still, the dashboard won’t necessarily report every case of COVID-19 within a school building. Kathryn Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, pointed out that the state’s data only includes outbreaks — defined as two or more cases that are linked through a public health investigation. To be included on the dashboard, epidemiologists must also determine that transmission occurred within a school building or at a school-related event. Hypothetically, that could mean students or faculty who contracted the virus somewhere else in the community wouldn’t be included in the state’s reporting, even if they were present at a school facility.

“We know single cases are going to happen when schools open,” Goodman added. “So, the biggest thing we’re looking at is the transmission internally. We want to be as transparent as possible, but we also really need to protect everybody’s privacy.”

That’s been concerning for both parents and teachers, whose districts often have significantly different policies for reporting cases. Some are opting for full transparency, publicly notifying teachers and families if a student or staff member tests positive and disclosing where the case occurred.

Richmond Public Schools have publicly shared details about new positive cases —including where they occurred — on social media. (Richmond Public Schools)

Other divisions are only reporting case tallies with no details on where exposures may have occurred. Katelyn Ritenour, an elementary school teacher in Chesapeake and secretary for her local union, said her division provides a weekly count of student and faculty cases, but doesn’t list them cumulatively or report which specific schools saw infections.

“We don’t know if outbreaks are happening or where outbreaks are happening,” she added. “So, there’s a huge rumor mill. Try as hard as we might, parents and staff members and the community talk to each other about what’s happening. And I think that if Chesapeake Public Schools took a more transparent route, they might not see quite as many rumors.”

It speaks to broader concerns, expressed by teachers and administrators, that schools are tasked with making important health decisions without clear requirements from the state. Many supported the flexibility offered by the K-12 guidelines, but said it could be difficult to make a call on reopening without more explicit instructions on when in-person classes could resume safely.

Gov. Ralph Northam and top state health officials spoke at a news conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Emails between VDOE and local divisions show numerous questions on how schools should calculate the risks. In June, just a day after Northam announced his plans for a phased school reopening, Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand emailed the department seeking more information on how to define and verify which students and staff were at “higher risk of severe illness” from COVID-19.

“If written documentation is required, could there be standardized language that comes from VDH that could be completed or verified by the student’s primary care physician?” Brabrand added. “We are concerned that we do not have availability for public health nurses to review this and FCPS does not have anyone with medical expertise to review/interpret this information.”

Meanwhile, some rural school districts had persistent questions on whether case rates were the best measure of how COVID-19 was affecting smaller communities. Keith Perrigan, the superintendent of Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, emailed VDOE multiple times between June and September to ask about the VDH metric, which calculates the number of new infections per 100,000 residents.

“One issue I see with the data that is being provided is that it is very difficult for a small school division to avoid a red designation in the ‘Burden section,’” he wrote in an August email to Lane. In areas with smaller populations, even a single new case can push up rates significantly — something Perrigan said wasn’t necessarily reflective of how quickly the disease was actually spreading throughout the community.

“Bristol’s population is 17,750. Every new case is like getting 5.63 new cases, 2 cases are the equivalent to 11.27 new cases, etc.,” he added in the email. 

In a later phone interview, Perrigan said part of the confusion for administrators was the sheer number of metrics that divisions were asked to consider. By mid-August, he said VDH began distributing local case rates to school divisions and calculating the level of community spread on a color-coded scale. Then, in late September, the department unveiled a new pandemics dashboard that included school reopening indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“School had been in session for a while by then, so that was really useless for us,” said Perrigan, who decided to fully reopen Bristol schools in August with a virtual option for families. And in some ways, educators said the new dashboard made things more confusing. VDH and the CDC calculate some metrics differently, with no clear guidance on whether schools should favor state or federal indicators. Under the CDC’s metrics, regions can also have varying risk levels for different metrics (a two-week case rate that’s labeled higher risk, for example, but a test positivity rate that’s in the lowest category).

A historic sign over State Street in Bristol, which serves as the Tennessee-Virginia border through downtown. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“What does it mean if your indicators are painting two different pictures?” asked Kimberly Adams, a library media specialist and president of the Fairfax Education Association. “Are we following the cases, are we following hospitalizations? Does one carry more weight?”

“We talk all the time about how as teachers, people who don’t do our jobs are the ones making decisions about how we do our jobs,” Ritenour added. “It’s similar in this situation for the medical field. We’re making all these decisions about medical best practices, but I didn’t go to school to become a doctor.”

Defining equity

The debate has also prompted difficult questions about educational equity. In July, one working mother in Chesapeake emailed two dozen VDOE officials in support of a face-to-face learning option for local public schools, writing that she and her husband — another essential worker — had no way to stay at home with their daughters. Two weeks earlier, a Henrico parent wrote just as passionately about the need to continue virtual school until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine.

“There is a very entitled, angry contingent of influential parents who are amassing a surprising amount of resources to pressure you into opening schools fully, with as few limitations as possible,” she emailed state and local school officials, adding that “teachers and staff are over-worked, under-paid and vastly under-appreciated, and now are being asked to risk their lives and the lives of their families.”

Schueler, who studies educational inequality at UVA, said there are programs that state and local agencies could implement to reduce the risk of widening achievement gaps between students, pointing to new models like the Tennessee Tutoring Corps, which recruits college students to provide one-on-one help to elementary and middle schoolers. But she said among most experts, there’s broad consensus that virtual learning will leave behind the most vulnerable students. Several national stories have focused on students without stable homes and homeless families who can’t access the internet at local shelters.

Perrigan said similar concerns over equity drove the decision to fully reopen in Bristol, a rural district where more than 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and many families don’t have access to broadband internet. But other small and rural divisions said they’re proceeding more gradually because of the health risk factors in the surrounding community.

“The concern that we really have in Brunswick is the comorbidities,” said Brunswick County Public Schools Superintendent Kristy Somerville-Midgette. “Along this Route 58 corridor, we have communities with high poverty, predominantly African American, and when you start thinking about diabetes and high blood pressure and all those other things, it’s what happens if we do have someone that’s positive?”

Only a small number of students with disabilities were coming in for face-to-face instruction when Brunswick first started the school year. The district just recently began admitting English-language learners back to the classroom. Somerville-Midgette said that part of the hesitation from families and teachers were growing case rates in neighboring areas, where many of them live or visit regularly. 

“We’re a small, rural community and there’s no Walmart here,” she added. “So if people go to shop, they shop in Mecklenburg or Greensville County. And those two counties — they were in red and we might have been in yellow or orange but it doesn’t matter because everything is so transient.”

But as the pandemic continues, Somerville-Midgette said that even districts who want to remain all-virtual may find themselves with their hands tied. Remote instruction, even in hybrid reopening models, is incredibly expensive. And it’s uncertain how much state and federal funding that public schools will continue to receive through next year. 

Brunswick County Public Schools have received a little more than $1 million in CARES Act funding through the state and through local appropriations, including roughly $257,000 through Northam’s latest round of spending earlier this month. But wireless hotspots alone have cost $500,000, according to Somerville-Midgette.

“That’s basically all of our extra money,” she added. Fairfax County estimated a whopping $13.9 million in recurring costs for local schools — from new devices for students to additional custodial staff — in a May 12 reopening presentation sent to VDOE.

“If we were fully in-person, we could use that CARES Act money for other avenues,” Somerville-Midgette said. “But right now, it’s all going to internet.” 

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

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. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.