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Chesterfield Changes Course, Beginning In-Person Classes

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Secondary students, like those who attend Clover Hill High School, may not head back to school buildings until February. But elementary students in Chesterfield County got the go-ahead to return to a five day in-person class schedule. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

Prior to Tuesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Merv Daugherty sent a letter to parents laying out a proposal to return elementary students to full time, in-person learning. He outlined how the next semester should look for the over 60,000 students if the board approves his request.

By a vote of 4 to 1, they did, with Dot Heffron being the lone hold out. Newly elected board Chair Ryan Harter says the board has followed the most recent and available information and relied on medical professionals to help guide their decisions. 

“That same information we relied on is evolving and we must evolve as well,” Harter said.

Harter says that after meeting with parents in various focus groups, the hybrid model the schools were doing was not working.

“This [new] plan gives parents and students a choice,” Harter said.

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But, the all clear for in-person learning is only for elementary students. Middle and high school students will have to wait until February when the school board reassesses metrics, and gets an update on teacher vaccinations. In his presentation to the board, Daugherty said that secondary students could return to in-person classes at some point during the semester.

Parents will still have the option for virtual learning, but it may require students to switch teachers. All parents must make a binding decision by 4 p.m., Jan. 19. The new semester starts Feb. 1.

Students may return to a teacher shortage. Back in October, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported “staffing shortages are rampant, with at least 611 employees resigning or retiring this calendar year alone as of Sept. 21. Nearly 400 of the resignations occurred over the summer, ‘due to the COVID issue,’ Superintendent Merv Daugherty previously said.”

At Wednesday’s meeting Deputy Superintendent Thomas Taylor said the issue of teacher shortages are still being solved -- the district is holding two hiring seminars later this month and next -- and he says they’ve ramped up hiring more substitutes. 

Both Daugherty’s letter and Taylor’s speech to the board highlighted how the district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies were effective in limiting transmission within the school setting. And he wrote that “medical research and reports continue to assert that with proper mitigation strategies schools can reopen safely, as they are not deemed to be superspreaders.”

In his address to the school board, Taylor said that transmission in school settings have been low and that the percentage of those positive cases is less than one percent of the total student and staff population.

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The research Daugherty and Taylor are referring to is from a recent article jointly published by several universities, including the Brown School of Public Health, that says with high quality infection control, schools can operate safely with a low to almost zero rate of positive transmission rate of the coronavirus. 

Daugherty cites the article in his letter to parents, writing:

“Recently, the Harvard Global Health Institute and other esteemed research groups (i.e. Brown University) working together on school reopening studies noted that, “Since July, our scientific understanding of COVID has increased significantly, as has our understanding of degrees of risk in schools, and we can now recommend that schools be open even at the very high levels of spread we are now seeing, provided that they strictly implement strategies of infection control.”

Back in March, when the stay at home orders were enacted by Gov. Ralph Northam, Chesterfield schools went to a fully virtual format. But as the pandemic wore on, the district slowly allowed different cohorts of students to return under a hybrid formula of at-home and in-person learning. 

Prior to the Thanksgiving break, positivity rates reached a threshold set by the district, causing schools to do a 180 on that formula. According to the state health department, the average number of cases in the county have nearly tripled compared to November. 

Many critics, including state and local representatives Siobhan Dunnavant, Joe Morrissey and Chap Petersen, who published a joint opinion article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, have said that virtual schooling leads to a drop in student’s academic performances. 

In their article, they write, “There is no evidence that schools must be closed to defeat COVID-19.”

First quarter results given to VPM by the school district confirm that students learning virtually are failing at a higher rate than last year.

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At the meeting, Taylor also said teachers are next in line to receive COVID-19 vaccines by the end of January or at the beginning of February. And at Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved a resolution drafted by the district, asking Gov. Northam to prioritize vaccinations for teachers as soon as possible.

Taylor told the board that the district conducted a study 

Parent Celeste Jackson is on the fence about sending her two elementary school children into Jacobs Road elementary.

“It’s like I want to, but at the same time. I want to like, not succumb to the pressure but just succumb to the fatigue of having them at home basically since March,” Jackson said.

Jackson says despite having what she calls “schooling at home fatigue,” there are still too many questions. 

“I mean, the positivity rate in this state is much higher now than when they went virtual the first time,” Jackson said. “And they said in the letter that the kids are going to be more like three feet apart, not six feet apart. [And] I don't know when the teachers are going to be able to get their vaccines.”

Jackson says because of those questions, she and her husband are going to keep their kids learning virtually.

Daugherty stressed in his letter that the school district will continue to enforce mask wearing for students and staff, physical distancing of three feet and more time for the use of hand sanitizer and hand washing. And he’s asking parents and staff to do daily self-assessment testing so children or staff can stay home if they have cold symptoms.

Parent Thomas Block says he and his wife are moving forward with sending their two children into Watkins elementary school Feb. 1. 

“I like the fact the parents are getting a choice to go all virtual,” Block said. “At least at Watkins during the time hybrid was in session there were no Covid issues.” 

Block says his children’s school principle is holding a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the outcome of the school board meeting. 

Here’s a breakdown from Daugherty’s letter on how the new semester will look.

Elementary school

  • All elementary school students (Cohort Nos. 2-3) would be eligible to return to in-person instruction five days a week starting Feb. 1, the first day of the third nine weeks.
  • Families who are not comfortable returning their children to school may continue to remain in an all-virtual learning environment with an assigned teacher.
  • Families must notify their child’s school if they plan to make a change in their child’s learning accommodations (switching from virtual to in person, or in person to virtual) by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19. The decision is binding for the rest of the semester.


Middle and high school

  • Middle and high school students in Cohort No. 4 will start the third marking period (Feb. 1) in a virtual learning environment five days a week. The formerly asynchronous Wednesdays now will be a synchronous virtual school day, as they were at the beginning of the year.
  • Middle and high school students taking career and technical education classes at [email protected] and [email protected], as well as students taking CTC-identified courses at Midlothian High, would be eligible to safely return to in-person instruction starting Feb. 1. Students attending Academy 360 also would be eligible to return five days starting Feb. 1.
  • The School Board will meet again in February to review progress with vaccine distribution, elementary re-entry, and review health data and operations to determine at what point during the third marking period it is appropriate to safely return these students to an in-person learning environment.


The next school board meeting will be held in February 9th.