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‘I’m focusing on what I can control’: Concerns linger as Henrico students return to school

Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 6:30 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2021 at 7:00 PM EDT
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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - On Wednesday, students in Richmond and Henrico are the last in the metro Richmond area to head back to school as some parents and teachers have concerns of unease.

All eyes have been on surrounding school systems, watching how they have fared with the return of in-person learning. Many districts are reporting dozens of COVID-19 cases within the first few weeks.

Henrico parent Sarah Johnson said watching what has unfolded in other localities is uncomfortable, even with Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) reporting 49 cases since Aug. 27.

However, Johnson said she is trying to remain optimistic and focusing currently on what she can control.

“We’ve been making sure that my kids have masks that fit them well and that they’re comfortable in,” she added.

Universal masking is in place for all students and staff in Virginia. While Johnson, a parent of three, is happy about that, she does have concerns after touring her kids’ schools during orientation.

“In my child’s elementary school classroom, the desks are next to each other in small groupings,” she said. “With the size of the classroom, I don’t see that they had any other option, but it’s not ideal.”

“Class sizes being too big, especially when we’re trying to maintain 3-feet of social distancing,” said Henrico Education Association President Patrick Miller. “For a lot of classrooms in terms of their size and roster, it’s just not doable.”

That is the major issue Miller has heard from teachers.

The HCPS Health Plan does call for at least three feet in distancing “when possible,” similar to the guidance from the CDC.

The school system also purchased 300 air-purification systems which were installed in all school cafeterias. Three will be in place in each elementary school cafeteria, and up to five larger systems in each middle and high school cafeteria.

However, Johnson would like to see alternative seating measures at all schools.

“Some schools have the option of some outdoor seating, but others do not,” she said.

Meanwhile, Miller believes lunch may be easier for older students, especially in the new Highland Springs High School.

“We have the brand new two student commons areas, so there will be enough room to maintain that three feet of social distancing at least during lunch,” he said.

How students will get to and from school is another concern plaguing the county and other localities. Henrico Schools has increased wages to attract new bus drivers.

The school system approved teacher raises this year, something Johnson said needs to continue.

“To make sure that we’re drawing the people that we want into those really important professions,” she added.

Both Johnson and Miller said they were excited for students to return to in-person learning and understand there will be challenges ahead.

“This year will be about leaping into teaching and learning — but doing it in ways that prioritize health and safety,” said HCPS spokesman Andy Jenks. “After the unprecedented year in 2020-21, we know our families and students are as eager as our staff members to embrace the new year with all that we have. Every school year brings challenges, and 2021-22 will certainly be no different. But no matter what, the coming year will be one of tremendous excitement, learning and community, while keeping the health and safety of everyone at the forefront.”

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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