The Henrico County School Board adopted a plan last week allowing an optional return to classrooms for younger students later this fall and older students in early 2021, but at a town hall meeting on Tuesday school leaders said whichever choice families make, either virtual or in-person learning, will be a year-long commitment.
While answering submitted questions from parents, Dr. Thomas Ferrell Jr., Henrico director of high school education, brought up the stipulation that families’ choice of learning model would be binding, except for specific instances.
“We’re encouraging all of our families to be intentional about making a decision regarding their students’ return to in-person learning or whether they remain virtual,” Ferrell said. “Because once that decision is made, that decision will be a year-long commitment.
“We do understand that there may be some mitigating circumstances that would call for the school teams to look at certain situations and make a decision on.”
Ferrell said if a student were to switch from in-person learning to virtual, or vice versa, there is no guarantee that student would be able to maintain their classes, and that making families commit helps Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) ensure that students will get to take the classes they selected for the academic year.
HCPS leaders did not explain what would happen to an in-person student’s class schedule if they or a family member tests positive for COVID-19, potentially forcing them out of school for multiple weeks, nor did they offer any details on the instances where a switch would be necessary.
The Virginia Star reached out to Ferrell and HCPS superintendent Amy Cashwell for further clarification on the year-long commitment, but did not hear back before press time.
The newly-implemented plan uses a phased-in approach to bring students back to their classrooms gradually starting with the younger ages first.
Students in Pre-K through 2nd grade have the option to return to in-person learning starting on November 30. Next, grades 3, 4 and 5 can begin in-person instruction on December 7.
The week of January 4, immediately after winter break, all Pre-K through 5th grade students will learn virtually.
In early February, grades 6 and 9 can return to in-person learning and, during the same week, grades 7,8,10,11 and 12 have the option to return to the classroom.
Students who choose the in-person learning option will be at school four days a week except on Wednesdays, when all HCPS students will be virtual to allow for teacher planning and professional learning time as well as deep cleaning of school buildings.
“We feel confident that, given conditions as they exist now, we can offer families an in-person choice while implementing effective risk-mitigation and safety measures that will prioritize the safety of students and staff,” Cashwell said in an online message to Henrico families announcing the plan.
The plan was put in place after the HCPS Health Committee recommended expanding in-person instruction along with risk-mitigation procedures that schools should follow, including classroom seats being six feet apart, one-way traffic patterns in hallways, maintaining cohort groupings as much as possible, among others.
Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Henrico County Health Department, said the committee made its recommendations after carefully examining regional COVID data and trends, and determining that the county is in a better spot now compared to previous months.
“I feel like we’re in a really good place,” Avula said at the town hall. “When we identify a case, which we inevitably will, there is no way we are going to create a scenario where do don’t have a case in a school, but when we do identify a case we will be able to contact trace quickly and contain the spread of disease so that we’re not having mass spread in schools.”
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