RICHMOND, Va. -- Katie Woodard and her two children are among the thousands of Virginia families who have been learning through virtual instruction since the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shuttered schools last March.
In the months since, a patchwork of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning models have developed across the Commonwealth, but Governor Ralph Northam is now calling on all school districts to make an in-person learning plan known by March 15, 2021, citing CDC research that showed school-based transmission of the virus is low as academic and socials gaps widen.
“It’s a rollercoaster!” said Woodard, whose middle school-aged daughter has adjusted well to virtual learning.
However, Woodard said her son, who is in the second grade, has struggled to adjust.
“He might just go off and start dancing,” she said of his virtual class. “I honestly don’t feel like he’s learned anything this year. It’s not his teacher's fault; it’s he’s an eight-year-old boy. He doesn’t have the attention span or wherewithal to sit there all day.”
Dr. Bergen Nelson, a pediatrician at VCU’s Children Hospital, said research showed that the risk of COVID-19 transmission in school buildings, though not zero, was minimal if schools tightly enforce universal masking, social distancing standards, good hand hygiene, and limit student and staff mingling.
“Even with high levels of community transmission, we know that mitigation within the schools can be very effective. There is no signal mitigation measure that is 100% effective but using a combination of them can be very effective,” she said. “We know there is a higher risk of adults transmitting to each other than there is from children passing it to adults.”
Dr. Nelson is a member of the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In a survey of 200 members statewide, the group said more than 90-percent reported increased instances of anxiety, depression, and emotional instability with their patients.
“It’s the perfect storm of stress with reduced access to support services,” Dr. Nelson said of the virtual learning environment. “I must say, I have tremendous respect for teachers who are doing so many jobs and working doubly hard.”
Protecting the safety of Virginia educators is the top priority of the Virginia Education Association, according to the group’s president Dr. James Fedderman. The VEA maintains its position that school districts should not reopen buildings until all school staff has a chance to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“School has never closed. It’s just the manner in which instruction was delivered, that changed,” Dr. Fedderman said. “Educators are going to continue to deliver the high quality of instruction. I’ve said for a very long time that we can recover from a loss of learning, but we can’t recover from a loss of life.”
Given the latest guidance from state education officials and recommendations by the federal government, it is likely most school districts will pursue some form of in-person instruction in the coming weeks, if they have not already. Dr. Fedderman said local officials must listen to the concerns of teachers when developing their plans.
“We are concerned, and we are optimistic that things are going to go in the right direction, but we are carefully watching so that we can be ready to intervene on behalf of our students and our members,” he said. “Educators are going to continue to deliver the high quality of instruction. I’ve said for a very long time that we can recover from a loss of learning, but we can’t recover from a loss of life.”
Both Dr. Nelson and Dr. Federman expressed optimism that despite the gaps in academic advancement for some students caused by almost a year of virtual instruction, teachers will be able to make up those gaps. Dr. Nelson said face-to-face interaction would help accelerate that process.
“We know how to treat depression; we know how to treat anxiety; we know how to support children who have had some academic struggles. So, I think once we get those support services back in place, we will have some catch up to do but it’s possible to really double down on our efforts to treat all those concerns,” she said.
On a local level, both Richmond and Chesterfield school leaders are set to update their communities on in-person instruction during school board work sessions Tuesday evening.