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State unveils new guidelines: 'Schools need to be open'

Posted at 4:03 PM, Jan 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-14 17:59:25-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced Thursday a path for more schools to reopen as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread throughout the community.

"The emphasis will change. Instead of school should be closed, we're going to approach it from the starting point of schools need to be open, and here are the ways to do that safely," the governor said when he announced a set of new guidelines the Department of Education was providing school systems. "The guidance will lay out a pathway, including how to use mitigation measures in school buildings, and how to prioritize students. Every school division will have to decide what works best for it."

The guiding principles include:

  • Support in-person learning considering both students and staff. Account for the learning needs and the health needs of all students.
  • Prioritize younger learners, students with disabilities, and English Learners.
  • Put education first. Prioritize educational opportunities over extracurricular activities or other events in the school and surrounding community. Establish reasonably safe in-person educational environments and then think through including extracurriculars and athletics.
  • Focus on prevention. Establish a school culture of adherence to mitigation strategies both in and out of school. Encourage people to physically distance, wash hands, and wear masks. Coordinate closely with your local health department. Educate students/staff to monitor health daily and stay at home if they have symptoms, and follow public health recommendations.
  • Consider community needs. Consider disease data and understand the socioeconomic factors, literacy barriers, and other educational needs in your community when making plans.
  • Be flexible and innovative. Scientific knowledge evolves rapidly, and local context is incredibly important. Decisions about instructional modality ideally should be made for shorter periods of time (e.g. 2-4 weeks) in response to changing disease dynamics rather than for longer periods or months ahead of time.

All public schools in Virginia closed in March 2020 as the virus was first reported in the state.

Earlier this school year, some school districts reopened classrooms to students while others opted to stick with virtual learning.

Both methods have proven to have pros and cons and varying degrees of success and failure.

"What Virginia PTA wants is what we all want, a return to schools when our teachers are safe and when our families feel safe," Donna Colombo, Virginia PTA President, said at Thursday's announcement.

Virginia Education Association President Dr. James Fedderman said everyone must do their part to ensure a safe reopening of schools.

"If you are anywhere indoors and you're not wearing a mask, you're not helping us to reopen our schools to in-person learning," he said. "Last week, the VEA recommend that all lessons remain virtual until each of our educators are vaccinated. And we are heartened that this process has started."

Earlier this week, Chesterfield Schools announced students would return to classrooms again in February (after previously returning in September/October before returning to virtual learning in late November).

Henrico Schools opted to push back a return to in-person learning until such a time when all teachers could be vaccinated.

Richmond Schools already made the decision to remain virtual for the entire 2020-21 school year.

This is a developing story.