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Guidance Issued for the Phased Reopening of K-12 Schools in Virginia

On June 9, Governor Ralph Northam announced a phased approach to allow for the reopening of in-person instruction for Virginia’s K-12 schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. Under the guidelines released by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), local school divisions are able to develop plans on how best to resume student instruction and the manner in which they may implement phased reopening, and submit them to VDOE for approval. The framework and state plan for reopening was developed in consultation with Centers for Disease Control guidelines and as a collaboration between the Office of the Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, Virginia Department of Health, and VDOE. VDOE also released a detailed document titled “Recover, Redesign, Restart,” for local school divisions to utilize in their planning.

The reopening process can be divided into three distinct phases (I, II, and III). These are aligned with the phases 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.

Broadly speaking, the three phases are as follows:

  • Phase I begins immediately and continues remote learning, but also allows for in-person special education instruction and childcare for working families.
  • Phase II allows and adds in-person learning for preschool through grade three students, English Learners (ELs), and summer camps.
  • Phase III would allow for in-person instruction for all students.

A local school division may enter a phase up to the same level under which the locality that it serves is operating. However, for a school division to enter Phase II or Phase III, plans must be submitted to VDOE for review and in compliance with recently established guidance. Beyond Phase III, school divisions will resume “new-normal” for instructional and extracurricular operations in consultation with public health officials and as additional guidance becomes available. If COVID-19 conditions within a locality were to worsen in the future, school operations may need to revert to earlier phases.

Due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19, the CDC and VDOE guidelines contain social distancing and mitigation strategies to improve student and staff safety. Some mitigation strategies include creating six foot physical distance between children on school buses and other indoor spaces, requiring staff to wear masks if they are unable to maintain six foot distance between themselves and students, and creating remote learning and teleworking options for students and staff who are at a higher risk of severe illness, to name a few. According to the guidance from VDOE, the State Superintendent of Instruction may consider variances for other in-person instruction on a case by case basis. However, such programs should follow all mitigation guidance.

These mitigation strategies may impact school operations and capacity limits, thus requiring a multi-faceted instructional approach for Phase III. For instance, social distancing on school buses may significantly reduce a school division’s transport capacity and necessitate tiered learning in which different cohorts of students attend in-person classes on certain days and use remote learning for others. Such changes are likely to require investment of resources that would not otherwise be required under normal school operations.

As previously reported, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Virginia received approximately $238.6 million in federal funding to address the impact of COVID-19 on the K-12 system. 90 percent of this figure is to be disbursed to directly local school divisions based on Title I allocation formulas of the Every Student Succeeds (ESEA) Act. The remaining 10 percent remains in reserve for statewide efforts through the Virginia Department of Education. A memo from Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. James F. Lane providing further information on the disbursement and use of these funds and spreadsheet detailing each local school division’s allocation of federal funds can be located here and here respectively.

Furthermore, Governor Northam recently announced the use of additional $43.4 million in CARES Act funding through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund to help offset additional K-12 costs related to COVID-19 mitigation. Of this amount:

  • $26.9 million will be used to support short-term and long-term initiatives expanding high-speed internet access;
  • $10 million to expand early childhood education and childcare programs;
  • $3.5 million to support the expansion of the Virtual Virginia online learning program to provide content for elementary and middle school students; and
  • $3 million to cover unfunded costs for the continuation of school-based meals programs while schools remain closed, including hazard pay for school nutrition staff.

Though these funds are needed and appreciated, it remains to be seen whether they will be enough to meet the unique and extraordinary needs brought about by COVID-19. According to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International, nationwide, the total additional expenses an average school division may incur to reopen is $1.8 million. K-12 funding will likely be a topic of discussion when Governor Northam reconvenes the General Assembly for a special session to address budget reforecasting.

Additionally, the phased reopening guidelines scale up opportunities for in-person instruction, prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable learners, for whom in-person instruction is most essential. Public schools in Virginia have been closed for in-person insurrection since Governor Northam issued Executive Order 53 in March as a means to minimize spread of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of students and school staff. This was shortly followed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos granting waivers to states to cancel all federally mandated testing under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). VDOE suspended the administration of the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and other standardized learning assessments for the 2019-2020 school year.

Although distance learning was allowed to continue to take place while schools were physically closed in accordance with Virginia’s Continuity for Learning Framework, the closure of schools during this period could result in significant decreases in student learning gains, which has the potential to negatively impact long term development. This impact is often exacerbated in vulnerable and at-risk youth populations, further widening achievement gaps. With the reopening of schools for the coming academic year, local school divisions are expected to provide new instruction for students and administer SOL assessments in the spring of 2021.

One recommendation of the accreditation task force contained with “Recover, Redesign, Restart” is to waive the Standards of Accreditation (SOA) for the 2021-2022 school year. This could be beneficial to local school divisions and localities as it will be difficult to fully resume pre-pandemic methods of instruction even under the new guidelines. As such, it may be unfair to hold school divisions to pre-pandemic standards of accreditation, which have community wide implications such as public perception of education and impact to real estate values.

Additional K-12 reopening information can be found on VDOE’s website, and in a June 15 presentation By Secretary Qarni and Dr. Lane to the House Education Committee. Virginia Phase Guidance for Schools includes details for each phase and can be found here. The May 2020 CDC Guidance for Schools is the foundational public health guidance which VDOE indicates should be used to guide local school division reopening plans and can be found here. Lastly, VDOE released “Recover, Redesign, Restart” which was released by VDOE for local school divisions to utilize in their planning and can be found here.

Governor Northam also recently announced reopening guidance for Higher Education, which can be found here.

VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett

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