By Justin Mattingly
RICHMOND — As more Virginia school systems decide to start the upcoming school year completely online, the state is set to roll out a new tool to help districts decide when students should return to school buildings.
Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said Friday the Virginia Department of Health is expected to unveil next week school reopening dashboards, complete with locality-specific COVID-19 data and ratings for if it’s safe for students to return. The ratings, in traffic light colors, still are solely guidance from the state, Qarni said, with decisions on reopening school buildings left to local school boards.
A green light, for example, means it’s safe for students to return in person, while yellow means a hybrid approach is best and red suggests students should continue to learn online only.
Qarni said the health department “should have [the dashboard] ready by early next week.”
The new tool comes as some of Virginia’s largest school districts are preparing to start the year with classes solely online, the same way the 2019-20 school year ended. Virginia’s current reopening phase allows for in-person learning for all students, but school officials are wary of COVID-19’s continued spread in the state and elsewhere, and a lack of understanding of the extent to which children transmit the virus.
“The changing course of the COVID-19 pandemic with infection rates surging both nationally and regionally has required us to alter our plans for school year 2020-21,” Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand told families on Tuesday, sharing with them the news that the state’s largest school system would open fully virtual rather than a hybrid approach he previously announced.
Brabrand added: “This was not an easy decision, but after reviewing the best available health data and continuing to gather input from teachers, staff, students, and families, we have determined that full-time online instruction is the only safe option at this time.”
Fairfax County educates roughly one in six public school students in Virginia.
Other large school systems, including Prince William County, Loudoun County and Virginia Beach, have also decided to go completely online to start the school year or the superintendent has recommended it. The Richmond area’s two largest districts, Chesterfield County Public Schools and Henrico County Public Schools, chose this week to go fully virtual as well.
“In making the decision to begin the year with a fully virtual school day, we asked and were asked a thousand important questions,” Henrico schools chief Amy Cashwell told families and staff members. “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.”
The issue has been the subject of intense activism from parents and educators, with both groups holding rallies and signing petitions.
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