HOPEWELL, Va. -- It's still July but students in Hopewell are going back to school.
Hopewell Schools began its balanced calendar, also known as year-round school, on Monday.
Hopewell's school year is spread out over a greater amount of time. Students are in class for 45 days and then get a 15-day break. During those breaks, called intersessions, students can either spend the time at home or sign-up for optional classes -- including some non-traditional ones like entrepreneurship, swimming, or art history.
School leaders hope the year-round schedule can reduce student burnout and also cut down on summertime learning loss.
School leaders plan to track metrics and tweak the program as needed.
"We will have significant results with student engagement and joy and love of learning and attendance sooner than later," Hopewell Superintendent Dr. Melody Hackney said. "I think it's going to take us a little while, at least the end of the school year, to look at whether or not we've got some specific data around how it's impacted student achievement."
Parents seemed to approve of the change.
"I'm all for it," parent Mustafa Abdullah, Sr. "You know, Hopewell, just to help their accreditation. Makes the community a lot better."
Hopewell is the first school system in Virginia to try year-round school system-wide. If it is successful there, other school systems may follow Hopewell's lead.
"Having this innovative model is really, really important," Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said at a first day of school ceremony. "The whole state is watching you. No pressure."
During the first day of school, COVID-19 precautions were also on full display of Patrick Copeland Elementary with signage, hand sanitizer, and marked hallways for foot traffic.
Starting this week, schools divisions now have almost full control over what COVID-19 precautions to have in place (an exception being masks are required on school buses due to a federal mandate) including who has to where a mask. Hopewell school leaders decided to go above the state recommendations and require them for everyone, regardless of vaccination status.
"Until our children, all children have access to the vaccine we've got to be safe and we'd rather be safe than sorry," said Hackney.
Governor Ralph Northam was on hand to mark the start of the new school year and announce potential help for COVID-19 precautions.
Northam said he recommended that $250-million of Virginia's $4.3-billion from the American Rescue Plan Act be spent to help school divisions upgrade their ventilation systems.
"Knowing of the problems that antiquated systems have with mold, etc. And also to have a good flow of air coming into the buildings -- it lowers the risk of COVID-19," said Northam.
Northam said the money would be used in a dollar-for-dollar match system. So, localities would have to use some of their ARPA funding on the project in order to get access to the state's money.
Officials said the minimum amount that must be spent in order to access the matching program is $200,000, but added there is no ceiling to the program.
State lawmakers will return to Richmond on August 2 to take up Northam's recommendations and determine how to spend the money.