Panel calls for ‘paradigm shift’ in Virginia school-to-prison pipeline
Families at Richmond Public Schools had until June 1 to choose between registering virtually or attending classes in person. By this point in the summer, COVID-19 vaccines were widely available for adults, new cases had fallen to less than 200 per day, and hardly anyone had heard of delta, the highly transmissible variant that now represents virtually all new infections across the United States
“It seemed like we weren’t 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 done quite well in a year of distance school. But the encouraging outlook convinced Yeager to sign them up in person.
By the time cases started to climb, it was too late to change your mind. The vast majority of school divisions in Virginia, including Richmond, have asked families to make a decision about the next semester in late May or early June. Virtual registration is now closed, and many are turning down an influx of requests from parents and students who have changed their minds.
Yeager is one of hundreds of families struggling with face-to-face learning even as a third wave of coronavirus casts a shadow over the school year. Some neighborhoods have already been quarantined dozen – Where hundreds – students after exposure to COVID-19. Earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Health urged Amherst County to temporarily close all its secondary schools after an epidemic in the district.
But local divisions are limited in so far and for how long they can close schools by state law. require in-person instruction (spent in the early days and optimistic about vaccine deployment in Virginia). At the end of last summer, a spike in cases prompted the majority of districts to reopen with hybrid or fully deported learning plans. This year, with new infections reaching even higher levels, they don’t have that option.
They are also not required to offer distance education. “Although school divisions must offer five days of in-person learning to any family that wishes 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 of the 132 local divisions – use Virtual virginia, a state-run program with its own teachers and its own curriculum.
Ten districts offer no virtual options, according to Charles Pyle, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. And some divisions offering their own virtual courses have even more stringent restrictions. Fairfax County, for example, limits distance learning to students with medical needs documented by a licensed health care professional. The deadline to register for the program was May 28, and just over 400 students, out of approximately 180,000 across the district, are participating.
“Family health / medical conditions are not considered for this program and eligibility is not extended to siblings or other students in a household,” spokeswoman Kathleen Miller wrote in a press release Friday. “Enrolling additional students would require additional staff, which has already been a significant challenge. ”
Providing both in-person and virtual learning, as many schools have done during the pandemic, has created an increasing burden on local divisions – even with millions of dollars in federal aid. In addition to teacher burnout, administrators have struggled to find enough staff to fill teaching and support positions, especially with regular exhibitions forcing many to self-quarantine. In a presentation to lawmakers last fall, State Superintendent James Lane described staffing as one of the biggest challenges opposite Virginia schools.
These ongoing needs, combined with the state’s mandate, provide little incentive for schools to continue to offer their own distance learning options. Brian Mott, executive director of Virtual Virginia, said registration for the program is open to all students until their district’s deadline. But he also said the planning needs made it difficult to cope with a wave of subsequent registrations.
“We have to make sure we have the right staff to support them,” Mott said. “The other reason is communication. Students don’t just sign up and start the next day. We need to put them in place and support them as soon as possible. “
Many local districts also limit virtual enrollment to students who can prove they were successful with modality – another process that takes time, he added. Despite division-wide policies to limit late registrations, this is exactly what is happening statewide. Mott said there have been more than 1,200 enrollment requests from individual schools in recent weeks, most of which involved multiple students.
Virtual Virginia offers a “limited number” of late registration slots, with priority for students with medical needs, students from military families or transfers who entered a school division after the deadline, said Pyle. But some individual districts are experiencing even higher demand.
The waiting list for Henrico’s Virtual academy now has over 3,000 students – an increase of around 800 from two weeks ago, the Henrico Citizen reported
As of the 5 p.m. deadline yesterday, the waiting list for the Henrico Virtual Academy stood at 3,035 students, up from around 800 just two weeks ago.
– Anna Bryson (@ AnnaBryson18) August 26, 2021
The district is trying to hire more teachers to accommodate the waiting list, according to the Citizen. Other divisions, however, simply refuse requests.
“Students who have not chosen the virtual option will not be allowed to go virtual,” said Diana Gulotta, spokesperson for schools in Prince William County, the second largest division in the state. “Those with documented health problems can request home care services. ”
Unlike Fairfax County, which is Virginia’s largest school district, Prince William is not currently requires its staff to be vaccinated.
Richmond is another division impose vaccines for his staff, and Yeager said it gives him some comfort. But while she understands the stresses local school districts face, she is frustrated – like many families – by the lack of flexibility in the midst of an ever-evolving pandemic.
Delta changed the conversation, she said. Research on earlier variants indicated that children were less sensitive to COVID-19 as adults and displayed milder symptoms when they contracted the virus. But the increase in the delta has matched worrying reports of an increase in pediatric cases and hospitalizations, especially in hard-hit areas. Ballad Health, for example – the main hospital system in far southwestern Virginia – has reported multiple COVID-19 admissions to its pediatric intensive care unit.
” We see dying children, although I know, intellectually, the chances of that happening are very low, ”Yeager said. It is still not clear whether the delta poses more risk to children than previous variants. Public health experts have pointed out that pediatric hospitalizations are still the same proportion of total, but that the overall number is increasing given the higher transmissibility of the variant.
Right now, however, the Delta poses the greatest risk to the unvaccinated – a population that still includes children under the age of 12. Authorization for this age group is not expected before the end of this year, according to some federal officials. And many parents are unwilling to take the risk.
“I would love to be wrong,” Yeager said. “But Delta is so terribly contagious. Children cannot be masked all the time. I don’t see how it’s going to be other than… I can’t even think of a polite way to say it.
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