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The Virginia Department of Education’s announcement this week that how to reopen schools this fall is a fully local decision has brought concern from state leaders about the pressure this is putting on school boards.
Henry County Schools officials say they have support and approval from the state on their plan for reopening on Aug. 10, and Martinsville Schools intends to submit its plan after the school board reviews it on Monday. But VDOE said in a letter that it won’t be approving plans and cedes those decisions based on conditions in each locality.
In a joint letter dated June 6, Superintendent of Public Instruction M. Norman Oliver and State Health Commissioner James Lane offered direction to the superintendents and school leaders across the state:
“This process leaves the final decisions about reopening squarely in the hands of local school boards. Local public health conditions, community concerns, and practical facility constraints have to be taken into account in these school reopening decisions, and we believe our local leaders are best positioned to do that thoughtfully.”
Even though the VDOE will not approve specifics it does require that those plans to address safety because of COVID-19 be posted first to the school division’s website and then submitted 15 days before school begins.
That’s where at least two leaders elected to serve the greater Martinsville area stepped into the conversation and spoke to some of the same points being elevated nationally by President Trump and some of his Republican allies who advocate that schools should reopen with no limitations. Some suggest the state should set and fund a plan, and there are examples from other countries to be followed.
“I’m probably more confused than ever,” said state Senator Bill Stanley (R-Rocky Mount), whose district includes Henry County and Martinsville. “The problem is that the governor’s plan puts restrictions on localities and then leaves localities with no direction on how to accomplish the limitations that he sets up or the goals that he has for them, which is going to create inconsistency between school board to school board.”
In addition to the VDOE’s declining to approve the required plans, the letter makes clear that “it is up to the local school board to decide when and how schools reopen.”
“You look for best practices,” state Del. Danny Marshall (R-Danville) said. “What can we learn from other states or other countries and everything that I hear is that Europe has already crossed that bridge and has schools in session?
“I think if they can figure out how to do that, then why can’t we?”
Stanley says the governor is making the task harder than it needs to be.
“The governor has handcuffed our school divisions before they even started and says, ‘Go make your own recipe on how you’re going to succeed doing this,’” Stanley said. “I firmly believe that we usually should leave everything up to the guidance and direction of our school boards, but if that’s the case, then they should just have a couple of firm guidelines like how many days a week the kids are going to be there, how we are going to make sure we are going to feed our children who are food-insecure, how are we going to make sure our special needs children are taken care of and allow these school boards to be creative.
“There is a limitation especially on rural areas — you can’t have more than 10 students on a school bus — we don’t have enough school buses, we don’t have enough school bus drivers, and we don’t have enough hours in the day to properly and safely get the students to and from school.
“It puts everything else in a tailspin.”
Both Stanley and Marshall said they believe Virginia should mandate a five-day-a-week school plan with the means to accomplish it.
“My grandson has taken some online classes, and he says he likes the personal class better, he feels like he learns a lot more with that personal interaction with the teacher and with the other students in the room,” Marshall said. “We need to get back to normal — we want to make sure it’s healthy and safe for our students and our teachers and staff, but they are doing it in other countries — why can’t we learn something from them?”
Said Stanley: “If we are fully educating the child, [if] that child has already missed a full year of socialization, a whole year of education, a whole year of sports or the things that a well-rounded, educated students in Virginia should participate in — extracurricular activities.
“We are harming these children and that harm will be seen in the years to come. We need to say we’re going to do it five days a week — here’s how we’re going to do it — we may have to split up the day, but we’re going to be a five-day-a-week school system and we’re going to be a five-day-a-week state.”
Both Henry County and Martinsville plan to reopen on modified schedules, with county schools alternating in-class and remote learning and the city planning to start remotely and phase to a similar blended schedule. Patrick County has surveyed families and is polishing its final plan.
Martinsville School Superintendent Zebedee Talley and Patrick County Superintendent Dean Gilbert did not immediately respond to questions from the Bulletin about how the directives in the letter might affect their plans to reopen.
“The Henry County Public School team has been working diligently to prepare for a safe return to school on Aug. 10,” Henry County School Superintendent Sandy Strayer said. “We are working closely with VDH, VDOE and local experts to ensure that our plans, as well as any revisions to those plans, are in the best interest of our school community.
“Phase 3 guidance will allow us to adjust some of our previous plans to ensure that more students are allowed to attend school and ride our buses each day, which is a positive step toward getting all of our students back in the classroom.”
The Henry County School Board held a regular meeting Thursday morning that included an extended session behind closed doors.
“The governor has had since we left the General Assembly knowing as this [coronavirus pandemic] grew that schools were going out and the determination would have to be — how do we get our children back in the classroom,” Stanley said.
“It appears like they’ve just not paid any attention to it and just hobbled together a plan that just strains our local boards.”