Henrico School Board unanimously approves virtual learning for start of school year

Henrico School Board unanimously approves virtual learning for start of school year

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - The Henrico County School Board unanimously voted for virtual learning for the first nine weeks of school.

The vote comes after Henrico County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Amy Cashwell previously announced the recommendation to go fully virtual at the start of the 2020-2021 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In making the decision to begin the year with a fully virtual school day, we asked and were asked a thousand important questions,” Cashwell said. “However, in the end, we had to focus on just one: Right now, based on the information we have today, our expertise and our best efforts, can we assure our staff members and families that returning to school in person will be safe and healthy? Until we can answer that question with confidence, your School Board and I believe that a fully virtual school day is the most feasible way to engage our students while prioritizing student, staff and community safety.”

For more than six hours the school board heard from teachers, parents and even students within the Henrico County School system. All voiced passionate reasons for how students should return to learning.

Many teachers with the group “HCPS Back to School Safely” said they do not think schools can reopen safely given the current environment.

“If the people out here cannot even stand six feet apart and cannot wear masks appropriately, how can we ask our students to do that,” said HCPS teacher Christine Suders.

However, some parents felt in-person learning is safe for students citing COVID-19 data showing children under 19 make up less than 11% of the cases here in Virginia.

“It is going to be emotional but we have to rely on the data, the science and the facts,” said HCPS parent Kevin Miller. “Experts are saying our kids needs the opportunity to go back to school.”

"The goal of every single person in this room is to get our school kids back to school in a semi-normal setting," said Tuckahoe District board member Marcie Shea.

Richmond & Henrico Health Districts Director Dr. Danny Avula was also in attendance and answered questions from the board ranging from testing to personal protective equipment, and COVID-19 involving children.

“Especially in kids, getting COVID is not really concerning to me,” Avula said. “I think as long as the family is being careful, as long as people are thinking about when someone needs to be isolated, as long as we’re protecting the elderly and those with underlying conditions, I’m much less concerned about a positive child because the risk of them getting severely ill is just so small.”

The work session comes after Dr. Cashwell announced her recommendation for full virtual learning for the first nine weeks of school.

However, some parents said that would not work for everyone.

“We understand that people need to have the choice to pick what is the best solution for their individual family,” Miller said. “A one size fits all just simply won’t work.”

“I’m a big advocate of parent choice overall but the choices have to be safe,” Suders rebutted. “We would never give our children two unsafe options. We have to give two safe options.”

“We’ve heard you; we’ve read everything; we’ve documented it; this process has been nothing short of Herculean,” said Brookland District board member Kristi Kinsella.

“Public education is a partnership; family, community, and school system,” said Varina District board member Alicia Atkins. “We have to acknowledge the unknown. We don’t know what we don’t know.”

All five board members said this was an incredibly difficult decision with many challenges to be discussed.

“I don’t like how I got to do stuff online. I’d rather a teacher with me instead of on a computer because I can’t understand good enough,” said Highland Springs freshman Juteriona Miller.

That’s something Henrico school leaders kept in mind before deciding to go completely virtual next semester amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“It came down to safety. It came down to what’s best for our community,” teacher Jimmy Lincoln

Lincoln is a teacher at Varina High and advocated for virtual instruction. He said he was concerned for his and everyone’s health and safety.

“I certainly was but more importantly...the safety of my students and their extended family and the safety of my young children at home,” Lincoln said. “I couldn’t live with myself knowing that one of my students brought it home to their grandmother or their grandfather or their immunocompromised aunt or uncle.”

Board Chairman Roscoe Cooper III said his children have expressed frustration like many others over missed socialization. While emotional well being was discussed, health and safety were also at the forefront for the board.

“I’ve also been faced with similar concerns related to protecting the safety of a son who is immunocompromised and ensuring that both of my sons’ learning needs are being adequately addressed,” Cooper said.

However, Atkins said some of the challenges the public and schools are dealing with currently were in place well before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This struggle we’re talking about with affordable child-care was here well before COVID,” she said. “This struggle that teachers are talking about for finding creative ways and having the freedom to teach was here way before COVID.”

The Varina District board members said the bright side of this pandemic is that it is providing an opportunity to discuss these issues.

“It’s providing an opportunity to put a flashlight on and gain the eyes and ears on topics that folks didn’t want to see and hear,” Atkins added.

While the board will continue to address the issues of child care, staffing, etc. leaders said they need the entire community’s support.

“Really and truly it is time to stop being divided and let’s move forward together,” said Three Chopt District board member Michelle Ogburn.

“We need the full cooperation of every employer in the county to work with parents to make this possible. To make it so parents can get through this and the challenges they and their children face.”

Among other point that emerged form the meeting include:

  • None of Henrico Schools’ employees will be furloughed. HCPS will keep employees at work, although in some cases roles may be slightly adjusted to best meet students’ needs.
  • Teachers will have the option to teach virtual lessons from their school classrooms.
  • Virtual learning does not mean students and teachers have to be in front of their screens all day, every day. Teaching material can take on different forms, such as independent work and projects.
  • Whether instruction is fully virtual or in person, the school division will continue to have high expectations for all students.

The school system said more information on virtual learning will be communicated to employees and families soon, as well as on a continuing basis. The virtual approach will be in place for at least the first nine weeks of the school year, which will begin on Sept. 8.

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