Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) on Tuesday announced that it is delaying in-person learning for all grade levels indefinitely because of local coronavirus numbers, just a week after pushing back the return to classrooms for elementary school students.
In an online message to families, Superintendent Amy Cashwell initially said the delay had to do with the school division’s nurses being pulled away from their regular duties to assist in administering vaccinations for teachers and other Virginians included within Phase 1b of the state’s plan.
“We will delay our return to expanded in-person learning across all grade levels because having schools with no nurses present would result in staffing levels that won’t meet our expectations for implementing the HCPS COVID-19 Health Plan for larger numbers of students,” Cashwell wrote.
The superintendent did not say when HCPS students would return to their schools, only pointing out that Phase 1b vaccinations could extend into February since two shots given several weeks apart are required.
Based on last week’s delay, pre-kindergarten and elementary school students would have been able to return to the classrooms four days a week starting on January 25th with older students coming back next month.
Hours later on Tuesday, during a Henrico County Board of Supervisors meeting, Brookland District Supervisor Daniel Schmitt disputed Cashwell’s reasoning for the delay.
Schmitt said: “Folks need to understand that we’re thankful that our school nurses are willing and able to assist with vaccination support, it is probably the most important public safety [issue] that we’re working on right now, but the nurses helping with vaccination is not the reason schools will not be ready to open on the 25th.”
The supervisor revealed that the agreement between the school division and the county was for nurses to help vaccinate outside of their contractually-obligated hours with HCPS.
“Let’s be realistic here,” Schmitt continued. “With the percent positivity that we’re experiencing right now and the workload with vaccinations, schools would likely not be prepared to open even if they had 100 percent of nurses back and ready to go.”
Despite going against Cashwell, Schmitt thanked the superintendent for her cooperation and flexibility, and was not overly critical of the mishap.
Currently, Henrico County is considered at the highest risk of transmission in schools under the core indicators of new COVID cases per 100,000 people and percent positivity of PCR tests within the last 14 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) K-12 School Metrics.
Several parents of HCPS students reacted to Tuesday’s newest delay to in-person instruction with feelings of anger, frustration and concern for their children who have conducted school virtually for many months now.
“I feel like we’ve been playing this game for almost a year now and they’re just not giving us the complete answer, especially with no going back for the foreseeable future,” Katie Woodard, whose children are in 6th and 2nd grade, told The Virginia Star. “I would have expected that in September, not January.”
Another parent, Jen Farmer, said that her daughter is experiencing the severe adverse effects virtual school can have on kids.
“[My] child was a normal kid, no health conditions and no mental health issues,” Farmer said. “She’s now seeing a counselor and taking medication. We are a fortunate family and have resources and we’re able to collaborate with her pediatrician, mental health experts and teachers, so I feel like we are actively managing the situation, but we cannot recreate that school environment that these kids need.”
Farmer believes that there needs to be an option to pick either in-person or virtual schooling so that individual families can make a choice while taking into account their specific circumstances.
Both parents said they have considered pulling their children out of the school division and moving to another county. Farmer has even looking into enrolling her child in online programs more tailored for virtual learning.
According to Cashwell’s message, limited in-person learning will continue for kids in special education, English language learners, technical and career-focused programs and unspecified “select” students in pre-kindergarten to 3rd grade.
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