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Difficult Decisions Loom as Local School Boards Consider School Reopening Plans in Wake of Updated Guidance

On July 6, 2020, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) announced updated guidance for the phased reopening of Virginia’s K-12 schools for the 2020-2021 school year. This follows the June 9 release of initial VDOE guidelines and an announcement made on June 25 by Governor Ralph Northam’s Chief of Staff, Clark Mercer, during the Governor’s regular scheduled COVID-19 briefings that the previously issued guidance from the VDOE was just that, non-mandated guidance intended to inform the discussions happening at the local level and that the final decisions about K-12 reopening are in the hands of local school boards. As previously reported, the initial guidance contained in the state framework was developed in consultation with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and as a collaboration between the Virginia Department of Health and VDOE.

In a letter to local school superintendents and school leaders announcing the guidance, Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane and State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver say that the new guidance has been, “updated to reflect the latest science, and the best public health guidance and recommendations available intended to reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in school settings.” This has been done even as the authors acknowledge that “the role of children in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, remains somewhat unclear and we are learning more every day.” Though the updated guidance contains some new recommendations, the “process leaves the final decisions about reopening squarely in the hands of local school boards.”

The new guidance continues to follow the previously released recommendations by dividing K-12 school reopening into three distinct phases linked to a locality’s phase as outlined in Governor Northam’s Forward Virginia blueprint, which has guided the process by which localities and businesses across the Commonwealth have operated during the pandemic. The guidance also continues to recommend that schools gradually resume in-person instruction while prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff and the needs of students who have been most impacted by school building closures.

Some updates from the previous guidance in Phase III include:

  • A large group gathering limit of 250 individuals;
  • Continued limitations on school athletics (Virginia High School League (VHSL) Phase 3 athletic guidance will be forthcoming); and
  • Further clarifications about face coverings and physical distancing, including acknowledging World Health Organization (WHO) guidance and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidance to encourage that schools aim for six feet of physical distance to the greatest extent possible; however, if six feet of distance is not feasible (inclusive of buildings and school buses), schools should implement a combination of face coverings and a minimum of three feet distance between everyone present.

According to VDOE, the phase guidance serves as a recommendation for Virginia schools to mitigate risks associated with COVID-19. Local school divisions are advised to make decisions on implementing such guidance, and assuming additional risk, in consultation with local health departments and school board attorneys. Divisions whose health mitigation strategies vary from the Phase Guidance must notify VDOE of such in their Phase III health plan submission.

Regardless of the new guidelines, many of the obstacles facing local school divisions and local governments in navigating a path forward to allow for safe reopening of K-12 schools remain. Local division leaders need to balance many different aspects in their reopening plans. This includes but is not limited to prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff, taking into account the developmental, instructional, and mental well-being of students, the childcare capacities of their communities to support any potential tiered learning that would see different cohorts of students attending in-person instruction during only part of the normal week, the transportation and physical infrastructure limitations of their school buses and school buildings, the broadband capacity of their community to support distance learning if needed, all while determining the budgetary impact of these mitigation strategies and the ability of local governments to afford them. Given many of the budget hurdles facing local governments as the economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to negatively impact revenues, this last point is likely to pose a significant challenge.

Following the release of the initial VDOE guidance VACo had previously written Governor Northam to highlight concerns and opportunities posed by the desire to reopen K-12 schools and simultaneously mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on public education and local governments. VACo Board Members and staff continue to engage regularly with policy makers and members of the K-12 education community such as the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) to identify the challenges of K-12 reopening and ways in which the Commonwealth can help ease the burdens local school boards and governing bodies face in doing so. We will continue to share updates and information on this issue as they develop.

Additional information regarding the new guidance document and frequently asked questions can be found on VDOE’s website here and here respectively.

VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett

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