William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)
It seemed like the pandemic had finally reached a turning point when Melissa Yeager made a decision about the upcoming fall semester.
Families with Richmond Public Schools had until June 1 to choose between enrolling virtually or attending classes in person. At that point in the summer, COVID-19 vaccines were widely available to adults, new cases had dropped to less than 200 a day, and almost no one had heard of delta, the highly transmissible variant that now accounts for virtually all new infections across the U.S.
“It seemed like we were not at the end of things, but that there was an end coming,” Yeager said. Her four children — none of whom are old enough to be vaccinated — had managed a year of remote school fairly well. But the encouraging outlook convinced Yeager to enroll them in-person.
By the time cases began climbing, it was too late to change her mind. The vast majority of Virginia school divisions, including Richmond, required families to make a decision about the upcoming semester in late May or early June. Virtual enrollment is now closed, and many are denying an influx of requests from parents and students who had second thoughts.
Yeager is one of hundreds of families stuck with face-to-face learning even as a third coronavirus surge casts a pall over the school year. Some districts have already quarantined dozens — or hundreds — of students after COVID-19 exposures. Earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Health urged Amherst County to temporarily close all its secondary schools after an outbreak in the district.
But local divisions are limited in how widely, and for how long, they can close schools thanks to a state law mandating in-person instruction (passed in the early, and optimistic, days of Virginia’s vaccine rollout). Late last summer, a spike in cases spurred the majority of districts to reopen with hybrid or fully remote learning plans. This year, with new infections reaching even higher levels, they don’t have that option.
Nor are they required to offer remote instruction. “While school divisions need to provide five days of in-person learning to any family who wants it for their students in the fall, school districts are not obligated to provide a virtual option for all students,” Fairfax County reminded families in May. The vast majority of them — 110 out of 132 local divisions — are using Virtual Virginia, a state-run program with its own teachers and curriculum.
Ten districts aren’t offering any virtual option at all, according to Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. And some divisions providing their own virtual courses have even tighter restrictions. Fairfax County, for example, is limiting remote learning to students with medical needs documented by a licensed health professional. The deadline to enroll in the program was May 28, and a little more than 400 students, out of roughly 180,000 across the district, are participating.
“Family health/medical conditions are not considered for this program and eligibility is not extended to siblings or other students in a household,” spokesperson Kathleen Miller wrote in a statement on Friday. “Enrolling additional students would require additional staffing, which has already been a significant challenge.”
Providing both in-person and virtual learning, as many schools have done over the course of the pandemic, have created escalating burdens for local divisions — even with millions of dollars in federal aid. In addition to teacher burnout, administrators have struggled to find enough staff to fill instructional and support positions, especially with regular exposures forcing many into quarantine. In a presentation to lawmakers last fall, state Superintendent James Lane described staffing as one of the biggest challenges facing Virginia’s schools.
Those ongoing needs, combined with the state mandate, offer few incentives for schools to continue providing their own remote learning options. Brian Mott, the executive director for Virtual Virginia, said enrollment in the program was open to any student until their district’s deadline. But he also said planning needs made it difficult to accommodate a wave of later registrations.
“We’ve got to make sure we have the appropriate staff to support them,” Mott said. “The other reason is communication. Students don’t just enroll and start the next day. We need to be setting them up and supporting them as soon as possible.”
Many local districts are also limiting virtual enrollment to students who can show they were successful with the modality — another process that takes time, he added. Despite the division-wide policies to curb late registrations, though, that’s exactly what’s happening across the state. Mott said there have been more than 1,200 enrollment requests from individual schools in recent weeks, most of which involve multiple students.
Virtual Virginia is offering a “limited number” of late enrollment slots, with a priority on students with medical needs, students from military families, or transfers who entered a school division after the cut-off date, Pyle said. But some individual districts are seeing even higher demand.
The waitlist for Henrico’s Virtual Academy now sits at more than 3,000 students — an increase of around 800 compared to two weeks prior, the Henrico Citizen reported
As of the 5 p.m. deadline yesterday, the waitlist for Henrico Virtual Academy was at 3,035 students — up from about 800 students just two weeks ago.
— Anna Bryson (@AnnaBryson18) August 26, 2021
The district is attempting to hire more teachers to accommodate the waitlist, according to the Citizen. Other divisions, though, are simply denying the requests.
“Students who have not chosen the virtual option will not be permitted to change to virtual,” said Diana Gulotta, a spokesperson for Prince William County Schools, the second-largest division in the state. “Those with documented health conditions can apply for homebound services.”
Unlike Fairfax County, which is Virginia’s largest school district, Prince William isn’t currently requiring its staff to be vaccinated.
Richmond is another division mandating vaccines for its staff, and Yeager said that’s provided her with some degree of comfort. But while she understands the constraints facing local school districts, she’s frustrated — like many families — over the lack of flexibility amid a constantly changing pandemic.
Delta has changed the conversation, she said. Research on earlier variants indicated that children were less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults and displayed milder symptoms when they contracted the virus. But the rise of delta has corresponded with worrying reports of increasing pediatric cases and hospitalizations, especially in hard-hit areas. Ballad Health, for example — the primary hospital system in far southwestern Virginia — has reported several COVID-19 admissions in their pediatric ICU.
“We are seeing children dying, though I know, intellectually, the chances of that happening are very small,” Yeager said. It’s still not clear if delta presents any more of a risk to children than previous variants. Public health experts have pointed out that pediatric hospitalizations are still the same proportion of the total, but that the overall number is rising given the higher transmissibility of the variant.
Right now, though, delta poses the greatest risk to the unvaccinated — a population that still includes children under 12. Authorization for that age group isn’t expected before the end of this year, according to some federal officials. And many parents aren’t willing to take the risk.
“I would love to be wrong,” Yeager said. “But delta is so terribly infectious. Kids can’t be masked all the time. I don’t see how it’s going to be other than … I can’t even think of a polite way to put it.”
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