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State Won't Be Approving School Reopening Plans

Elementary school sign
Robious Elementary School (Photo Credit: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Public schools and private day schools for students with disabilities in Virginia have to submit reopening plans to the state before they begin fall instruction, but there isn’t an approval process for these plans. 

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said in June that the Virginia Department of Education will be signing off on school districts’ plans. But that’s not the case. A spokesperson for VDOE said state staff members will simply be reviewing the plans: “If we feel there are issues the school division needs to address based on our review, we’re going to communicate with the school division.”

VDOE’s communications director Charles Pyle said, “We are not approving these plans: there is not an approval mechanism or process.”

And while the state has released guidance stipulating different phases of reopening, VDOE won’t be enforcing whether or not schools follow these guidelines. That’s because they’re just guidelines, and not the law.

“Ultimately it’s the local school board’s responsibility to apply the guidance as they see fit based on the circumstances of the school division,” Pyle said.

A spokesperson for the governor recently said public schools are subject to new workplace safety regulations, through the state Department of Labor and Industry. 

“As employers, schools must comply with certain health and safety requirements in order to protect the health of their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Northam’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said in an email to VPM.

Meanwhile, a grassroots education organization called Virginia Educators United is holding a car rally in Richmond Monday morning, calling for schools across the state to only reopen virtually in the fall.

Alden Blevins is a music teacher in the group. She’s worried about bringing the virus home to her husband, who has asthma and other serious respiratory issues.

“When you are a person within a high-risk group, then generally places are accommodating you,” Blevins said. “But when you live with a person in a high-risk group, you're less likely to get accommodations and you're just sort of high and dry.”

Blevins has requested accommodations from her employer, but she says they have not been approved yet. She did not want to say which school district she works for, out of fear of retaliation. 

“If we still don't have answers to basic questions about how quarantining is going to work about how workman's compensation is going to work about any of those factors, how do we know that we're ready to open schools?” Blevins said. 

The group wants Northam to require all schools to remain physically closed until the state sees a downward decline in coronavirus transmissions, and more funding is allocated to help pay for districts’ reopening plans. 

The car rally begins Monday at 10 a.m. at MLK Middle School in Richmond. From there, organizers plan to drive downtown to the state capitol.