As the 2020 elections fade into the background, Governor Ralph Northam has re-instituted capacity limits and restaurant curfews, but unlike in spring 2020, the governor has not closed schools back down. He has also not called for schools to open back up, leaving local districts to make their own decisions.
“Health directors tell us that schools and workplaces are largely doing well to follow the requirements, but that the virus is spreading when people gather with friends or coworkers after work or school,” Northam said at a Wednesday press conference. He said that transmission occurs outside those environments in social gatherings.
Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) told The Virginia Star her staff was watching Northam’s press conference.
She said, “We didn’t get any strong statement from him that he was supporting opening schools. He should have done that, he should have said that in July. He should have said we need to open schools to protect children and find a way to do it.”
Dunnavant said that the original purpose of the shutdowns last spring was to allow supply to catch up with demand. “It really wasn’t to permanently decrease transmission, or to affect it,” she said.
Several of Virginia’s school districts are shifting — schools that had begun returning students to in-person classes in October or November are closing back down, while others that were more resistant to reopening have now decided to start phasing students back in.
In October, Chesterfield County began phasing in in-person learning in its schools despite strong opposition from local teachers’ organizations. Then, on Monday, the district returned to a fully virtual model with exceptions only for special need students. The district based the decision on rising case counts in the Chesterfield County general population.
“This return to an all-virtual learning environment, due to public health data reflecting a worsening pandemic locally, will last at least through the end of the first semester (Jan. 29),” the district said in a news release.
Chesterfield parent Lea Agnor said on Facebook, “This sucks! My son is very upset. He needs the in-person help. Online learning is very frustrating. There have been no cases of COVID in his school, why do they have to close it?!”
Other commenters supported the district. Larry Hampton commented, “This was an eventuality. The Restart program came with a condition that is no longer being met. They told you this when we started. We tried the “ignore it and hope it goes away thing”. It isn’t. As a parent of a teacher in the county, thank you CCPS for keeping the teachers and students safe.”
Neighboring Henrico County made a similar decision, postponing plans to phase-in in-person learning until the second week of January, according to a county news release. In southwest Virginia, many districts closed schools, switched to virtual learning, or used a two-hour delay during a cold blast at the beginning of the week, according to WFXR. However, Lee County announced that they will remain virtual until January 11.
On December 1, Loudoun County 3-5 grade students returned to their classrooms. Dunnavant said the disparity in responses is due to a lack of leadership from the state. Districts are relying on metrics like case counts of COVID-19 in the general population, despite data showing that there is little risk of transmission among young students, or from students to teachers, Dunnavant said.
According to Dunnavant, who is a doctor, Virginia is in an ‘endemic phase’ of COVID-19 with a long-term pattern of increasing and decreasing case counts of the disease in local populations.
Meanwhile, officials are ignoring other metrics, according to Dunnavant.
“The state is providing abysmal leadership on how schools can discern what is safe,” Dunnavant said. “They have metrics that they are following, but the metrics they are following do not comprehensively assess all of the variables that affect kids, like access to food, a safe place to learn, the screening capabilities of the trained staff in schools, having an education that they can use to succeed and participate in the American economy.”
Dunnavant said, “All of those things are metrics that aren’t being measured in the templates that are being given to the schools.”
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