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Parents are changing their minds on in-person school. In most cases, there are no other options.

‘Delta is so terribly infectious.’
William Fox Elementary School in Richmond.
William Fox Elementary School in Richmond.(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury 2019)
Published: Aug. 30, 2021 at 1:32 PM EDT
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It seemed like the pandemic had finally reached a turning point when Melissa Yeager made a decision about the upcoming fall semester.

Families with Richmond Public Schools had until June 1 to choose between enrolling virtually or attending classes in person. At that point in the summer, COVID-19 vaccines were widely available to adults, new cases had dropped to less than 200 a day, and almost no one had heard of delta, the highly transmissible variant that now accounts for virtually all new infections across the U.S.

“It seemed like we were not at the end of things, but that there was an end coming,” Yeager said. Her four children — none of whom are old enough to be vaccinated — had managed a year of remote school fairly well. But the encouraging outlook convinced Yeager to enroll them in-person.

By the time cases began climbing, it was too late to change her mind. The vast majority of Virginia school divisions, including Richmond, required families to make a decision about the upcoming semester in late May or early June. Virtual enrollment is now closed, and many are denying an influx of requests from parents and students who changed their minds.

Yeager is one of hundreds of families stuck with face-to-face learning even as a third coronavirus surge casts a pall over the school year. Some districts have already quarantined dozens — or hundreds — of students after COVID-19 exposures. Earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Health urged Amherst County to temporarily close all its secondary schools after an outbreak in the district.

But local divisions are limited in how widely, and for how long, they can close schools thanks to a state law mandating in-person instruction (passed in the early, and optimistic, days of Virginia’s vaccine rollout). Late last summer, a spike in cases spurred the majority of districts to reopen with hybrid or fully remote learning plans. This year, with new infections reaching even higher levels, they don’t have that option.

Nor are they required to offer remote instruction. “While school divisions need to provide five days of in-person learning to any family who wants it for their students in the fall, school districts are not obligated to provide a virtual option for all students,” Fairfax County reminded families in May. The vast majority of them — 110 out of 132 local divisions — are using Virtual Virginia, a state-run program with its own teachers and curriculum.

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