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Virginia Education Officials Push In-Person Learning Statewide

State superintendent
State Superintendent James Lane explained Virginia's new reopening guidelines during the governor's press briefing Thursday. (Source: Screenshot of livestream)

The Virginia health and education departments are sharing new guidance with local school divisions to return to in-person classes gradually as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

In a Thursday letter to school and health officials, State Superintendent James Lane and State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said new data shows that school reopenings are “unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmissions.”

Lane broke down the new guidance during a virtual press conference Thursday. He celebrated the document’s language for more directly encouraging in-person learning, adding that many Virginia students have suffered academically from virtual instruction.

“Vaccination is not a precursor to opening schools using this guidance,” he said, though he added that vaccinations of teachers and staff would expedite the reopening process. 

The state’s new guidance document offers a step-by-step guide for schools to gradually return to in-person classes.

First, the VDOE recommends that local districts self-assess their ability to implement five key strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools: the use of masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, and contact tracing.

The department also recommends that school officials evaluate the level of COVID-19 transmission in their communities with the help of local health departments. This will require local schools to consider the number of coronavirus cases, existence of outbreaks, hospital capacity and other factors in their region.

Another recommendation by VDOE is for districts to determine the impact of community transmissions within their schools. In order to determine school impact, districts will have to consider the following criteria: number of outbreaks in schools, student absenteeism and staff capacity.

VDOE then calls on local school districts to identify the needs of students from marginalized groups, including English learners and students who have disabilities or face poverty. The new guidance recommends that districts take internet access or the need for childcare into consideration when deciding whether to remain virtual.

This step also asks schools to determine how many teachers and staff members fall into “high-risk categories” that may need to continue working virtually.

Once these four steps have been completed — in no specific order, Lane says — school districts may move to Step 5: creating a timeline to return students to the classroom in phases, and deciding which students return to in-person classes first.

“While we must remain vigilant regarding the prevention and spread of [COVID-19], we need to balance this important objective with the shared goal of providing in-person educational instruction to the children of Virginia,” the joint letter reads.