RICHMOND — State agencies say Virginia will now prioritize in-person instruction going forward in the coronavirus pandemic.
On Thursday, the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Education released new guidance on how to safely reopen school buildings and have students return to the classroom, replacing the phase guidance issued in July.
“Instead of ‘schools should be closed,’ we’re going to approach it from the starting point of ‘schools need to be open,’” Gov. Ralph Northam said at a COVID-19 briefing Thursday.
“Every school division will have to decide what works best for it,” the governor added.
The new guidance does not serve as a mandate to force schools to open. Instead, schools are being asked to maximize in-person instruction depending on such factors as how many outbreaks a school has had and how strained a school’s staff is because of absenteeism.
Impact is assessed at three levels: low, medium and high. Schools with the lowest impact have zero to sporadic cases of COVID-19, along with no evidence of transmission; low student absenteeism; and normal staff capacity.
At the highest risk are schools that have several large outbreaks in a short time, along with a strained staff and high student absenteeism.
The new guidance says such schools should still try to remain open, but prioritize high-needs students, including students with disabilities, English-language learners and younger students. If a community’s transmission rate and absenteeism are both at the highest risk level, schools should consider temporarily moving to remote instruction, the guidance says.
The guidance also includes a decision matrix with recommendations on whether to have in-person instruction.
Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, James Lane, said Thursday that the guidance comes as many school systems are deciding whether to reopen.
“We don’t anticipate new schools will start opening tomorrow under this guidance,” Lane said during Thursday’s news conference. “But here in the coming weeks, we expect our school boards to look at this and make decisions based on a much more clear matrix around how to do this decision-making.”
As of last month, about 40% of the state’s 132 school systems were operating on a fully remote basis. But long-term closures can hurt students’ social and emotional health, the VDH says.
Across the state, medical experts have reported increases in anxiety and mental health crises among children.
In a letter sent Thursday to school leaders and local health directors, Lane and the state’s health commissioner, Norman Oliver, said “long-term school closures as a mitigation strategy for COVID-19 transmission may cause inadvertent harm to children; for example, children who do not have in-person instruction may suffer learning loss with long-term effects, mental health issues, or a potential regression in social skills.”
The new guidance comes as many of the state’s school districts are classified as being in the highest risk category of COVID-19 transmission, with Virginia recording more than 5,000 new cases every day. Of the state’s 5,626 deaths from the coronavirus, almost 600 have been reported since Jan. 1.