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Henrico Parents’ Group Pushes For Full In-Person Classrooms This Fall

Front edifice of Glen Allen High School
A group of Henrico schools is calling for the resumption of normal instruction in the fall, protesting a proposed staggered schedule designed to comply with social distancing. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

A group of Henrico County parents, organizing as Choices for Virginia Schools, want the county school district to fully resume in-person instruction in the fall, without staggered schedules to account for social distancing.

Over email and a Facebook group, the parents organized to protest outside of a school board meeting tonight where officials are slated to discuss options for reopening schools.

The group is also seeking legal advice from Troutman Sanders law firm, although doesn’t have current plans to pursue legal action. Julie Stribling is one of the group’s founders, and has three kids in Henrico County schools. She says virtual learning was a mess for her family, with only one computer for all elementary-age students to share.

“It truly was just a mess, and I was trying hard,” Stribling said in an interview with VPM. The stay-at-home parent said she can’t imagine what it’s been like for working parents to juggle teaching multiple, young kids at home.

“We truly feel that there's a lot more risk keeping children out of school than allowing them to go,” Stribling said. “There's so much more to school than just sitting behind a computer. There's the social and emotional elements. And those are the things I think most parents that I've talked to are really concerned about.”

Stribling points to recent research that found children and teenagers under the age of 20 are only half as likely to become infected from COVID-19 as older adults.

She adds sending kids to school in-person a couple days a week on a staggered schedule as the district has floated will place an additional burden on already overburdened working parents.

“They're going to have to be in childcare somewhere else, or they're going to have to hire childcare,” Stribling said. “So, they're still being exposed, if that's what the worry is. So it just doesn’t seem to make sense.”

Emily Griffey, policy director for advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children, says if districts are serious about moving forward with a staggered approach to in-person instruction, they should look into ways to simultaneously provide childcare for parents who can’t stay home with their kids on days they’re expected to learn remotely.

“We know that at least two thirds of parents of young children are working full-time,” Griffey said. “That [staggered schedules] leaves them with the bag of needing to figure out, what happens to my child when they're not in school?”

Right now, Henrico County Public Schools isn’t considering the option that Stribling’s group is hoping for. “A full in-person reopening is not part of early planning, based on state guidance and the advice of health experts during a pandemic,” wrote Andy Jenks, spokesperson for HCPS, in an email response to VPM.

It’s unclear whether or not state officials will allow districts to fully reopen in the fall or not. Districts must submit plans for reopening under phases two and three, but it’s not known whether the state will be in or beyond these phases by the fall.

Clark Mercer, chief of staff for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, wrote in an email to Senator Bill DeSteph’s office that, while each district has flexibility to come up with its own plan to submit to the state for approval, “Some districts may want more distance learning, many will want less - we would expect many districts to be at regular capacity when the school year begins.”

VPM asked Northam’s office if they expected a full reopening for schools in the fall, without staggered schedules. A representative didn’t clarify their intention, but told VPM that while the phased guidance serves as a recommendation, “Divisions will make decisions on implementing such guidance, and assuming additional risk, in consultation with local health departments and school board attorneys. Public health conditions and practical limitations may inform decisions to deviate from the guidance.” 

Additionally, despite the operational status of the buildings in a particular community, there is a mandate for all public schools to deliver all content for the 2020-2021 school year.