‘Hung out to dry’: School boards, not the state, are deciding how to reopen, sparking fierce local debates

‘Hung out to dry’: School boards, not the state, are deciding how to reopen, sparking fierce local debates
A school bus in Richmond. (Source: Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

A little over a week after Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans for a phased reopening of Virginia’s K-12 schools, Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence wrote a frustrated email to a top official at the state’s Department of Education.

“This variance option — and the ongoing statement that all parents have to do is lobby their school board and superintendent if they want us to vary from the state plan — has injected politics into this decision,” he wrote to James Lane, the state superintendent of public instruction, forwarding an angry email he received from a faculty member at a local private school.

“Without context, we are going to be hung out to dry here,” Spence added.

For Virginia Beach and other districts across the state, the issue at hand was Virginia’s phased guidance for K-12 schools, a 13-page document that asked local divisions to draft and submit reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year. But it left the final decision on whether to open classrooms for in-person instruction “squarely in the hands of local school boards,” according to an introductory letter signed by Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver.

Emails between VDOE and local school divisions, obtained by the Mercury through a Freedom of Information Act request, show the politicization of school reopenings and uncertainty over how local administrators should interpret a slew of public health data were concerns from the beginning of the state’s plan. Administrators found themselves on the front lines of a contentious policy debate, with health officials often unwilling to weigh inconclusively. Virginia Beach, for example, asked its local health department whether the district should deviate from the state’s guidance.

“They told us they wouldn’t make a recommendation,” Spence sharply informed Lane.

Meanwhile, teachers begged the department to come up with a comprehensive statewide plan for how individual schools should handle COVID-19 cases. Some working parents pushed for reopening, while other families expressed serious reservations about returning without an effective vaccine.

More than four months after the guidance was released, it’s a debate that’s only grown more contentious. Most of Virginia has been in Phase Three of Northam’s statewide reopening plan since July 1 — a stage that allows schools to begin offering in-person instruction for all students, according to the K-12 guidelines. As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into the fall, more divisions are eying a gradual return to the classroom, with some already bringing students and teachers back.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.