Gov. Ralph Northam announced new guidelines Thursday that put pressure on school districts to begin in-person instruction sooner than later.
The updated guidelines are not a directive but more like a gentle push. The 14-page document re-emphasizes dozens of factors that the state has always said schools should consider, such as learning loss and student mental health. New though is explicit guidance to consider resuming in-person classes even when the number of coronavirus cases in the community is high.
Ultimately, the decision still lies in the hands of superintendents and school boards that have spent half the school year debating how to apply the last set of guidelines — with many opting for caution. But Northam said it’s time to consider a new approach.
“Instead of (saying) schools should be closed, we’re going to approach it from the starting point of schools need to be open, and here are the ways to do that safely,” Northam said.
State Superintendent James Lane said the new guidance isn’t asking districts to abandon caution, just take into account what’s been learned about the virus.
“We know so much more now,” Lane said on a conference call Thursday. “We know that schools can open safely.”
Temporary remote instruction is suggested only when community transmission rates are at their highest, its effect is seen through things like teacher or student absences or cases and when schools can’t implement mitigation strategies. If community transmission is high but the school-based effects are lower and mitigation strategies can be carried out, then as many students who can be should have the option to be in-person.
The “should be in school” part of the guidance is the main change. It draws in part on a thesis often repeated by officials in districts like Chesapeake and Isle of Wight that have the most aggressive return plans locally — the virus isn’t spreading more in schools than the surrounding community.
But, state officials acknowledged in a letter to superintendents that high community case numbers do lead to more cases and outbreaks in schools.
Most students in Hampton Roads are learning virtually, and some haven’t set foot in a classroom since March. Chesapeake is the only one of the seven cities with plans to bring back students this month. Other districts have paused their hybrid learning plans in the face of soaring case numbers.
Northam’s announcement is unlikely to change that, but Lane said the state hopes the guidance prompts districts to be more aggressive, particularly as parts of the state begin to vaccinate K-12 employees. Vaccination doesn’t need to be a precursor to reopening, Lane said, but he acknowledged the timing of the second phase, which includes teachers, will make districts more comfortable.
“We don’t anticipate that new schools will start opening tomorrow on this guidance,” Lane said. “But here in the coming weeks, we expect our school boards to look at this and make decisions based on a much more clear matrix around how to do this decision making.”
Many districts so far have based their decisions on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that came out shortly after the school year started. They outline three key metrics: the number of COVID-19 cases, the percentage of tests coming back positive and the ability of schools to institute “key” mitigation measures like masking and social distancing.
The state shortly afterwards matched those CDC guidelines with phases of reopening. In the highest category? Stay with virtual learning. For districts in one of the lower risk categories, some combination of virtual and in-person learning is advised.
The updated guidelines, the first from the state since October, tell schools to take a five-part approach.
First, schools should assess how well they’ve implemented mitigation strategies like masks, physical distancing, handwashing and contact tracing. Few schools so far have rated themselves at anything other than at the lowest risk for transmission in that category, saying they’ve fully implemented mitigation measures.
However, there have been cracks. Virginia Beach’s superintendent said this week that he believed high community case numbers could overwhelm their contact tracers, part of his recommendation to stay virtual this month.
The second step asks districts to consider the effect of COVID-19 on schools. That means looking at the number of outbreaks in the school, how many students are absent and if the building is fully staffed.
If there are only sporadic cases, low student absenteeism and staff capacity is normal, the guidelines suggest the level of school impact is “low.” If there are several outbreaks or large outbreaks, many students are missing school and staffing is low, the impact is “high.”
Staffing has been a particular thorn in the side of some school districts. Hampton reduced its reopening plan in the fall due to a shortage of teachers.
Hampton Roads districts have reported hundreds of cases connected to schools in recent months, leading to student and teacher absences as they quarantine. Chesapeake’s case dashboard alone reports 109 in the last two weeks.
But the VDH has not reported many outbreaks in public schools, which is how the guidelines recommend judging transmission in schools. VDH has reported 109 outbreaks in K-12 schools since the pandemic began, trailing other settings like nursing homes and jails.
Several schools in Hampton Roads have seen outbreaks, although many of the largest are at private Christian schools, according to VDH’s outbreaks list. An ongoing outbreak at Portsmouth Christian School is connected to 22 cases, and ongoing outbreaks at Cedar Road Christian Academy and Cedar Road Elementary School in Chesapeake are each linked to 11 cases.
The third step of the guidelines asks districts to look at the other CDC key and secondary metrics. Every city in the region has long since blown past the numeric thresholds set in those guidelines.
The most significant part of the new guidelines is step four, which asks schools to “balance the goal of disease prevention and the goal of providing in-person instruction.”
The guidelines ask schools to consider the impacts on young learners, students with disabilities and others who struggle more in virtual learning environments. Schools are also asked to consider children without internet at home, families that don’t have other childcare options and the number of staff who are in higher-risk categories for illness.
“Children are hurting right now. Families are hurting,” Northam said during the press conference, adding that the state was looking at extending the school calendar to make up for missed in-person instruction.
The fifth and final step presents a matrix for school leaders to use, balancing the level of community transmission with the impact to schools and ability to follow mitigation strategies.
Even if community transmission is at its highest level, the guidelines recommend bringing priority learners like younger students, students with disabilities and English language learners back as soon as possible. More groups could be added as capacity allows.
Virtual learning for all is only recommended if the impact to schools is high or mitigation measures aren’t working while cases are at their highest level.
Northam’s press conference announcing the guidelines included Donna Columbo, president of the Virginia PTA and James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association.
“What Virginia PTA wants is what we all want — a return to schools when our teachers are safe and when our families feel safe,” Columbo said.
The VEA, which represents about 40,000 educators across the state, has opposed reopenings in many districts. Fedderman said in a statement last week that schools should not reopen until staff can be vaccinated.
Northam said vaccination is not necessary to re-open schools, and the new guidelines don’t address the topic. But, Fedderman reiterated his commitment for vaccination in addition to mitigation strategies, while acknowledging that educators want to get back to the classroom.
“We will get back to in-person instruction everywhere,” Fedderman said. “The real question is, when will we have completed the actions to make in-person learning safe?”
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