Tazewell County school bus

RICHMOND — Local school boards in Virginia have the authority to reopen schools in the manner they determine is safe and appropriate for their location.

Clark Mercer, Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief of staff, addressed the issue during Northam’s pandemic briefing Thursday afternoon, saying questions have been received from state legislators and parents about the issue.

Mercer said the state’s guidelines on reopening schools were recently released and they follow CDC (Center of Disease Control) recommendations.

However, the guidance has been represented as “law” to localities, he said.

“That is not the case. It is intended to inform the discussions happening at the local level, but it does not mandate one particular approach (to reopening),” he said. “It is guidance, not law.”

Mercer said the state is very diverse and areas have different infection rates of COVID-19.

“It is up to your school board on how they are going to open responsibly,” he said. “The final decision rests squarely in the hands of local school boards.”

Mercer said many questions regarding how schools will look when they reopen have surfaced, so the clarification of which entity makes the final

decision was needed. But the bottom line is that schools should open “responsibly.”

The Tazewell County School Board, as well as others around the state, recently passed a resolution formally requesting that Northam give local school board’’s flexibility on how they open, especially with providing as much in-person classroom time as possible.

Northam has said school divisions must submit a plan to be approved by the state, and guidelines were issued. But how much flexibility school boards will have remained unclear.

Mercer did not address whether a reopening plan would need to be approved by the state, but emphasized the plan to be used is the school board’s decision.

The resolution in Tazewell County also said Northam does not have the authority in the state Constitution to close schools and the board sought legal advice on any possible course of action. Northam ordered all state schools closed in mid-March.

Virginia enters Phase Three of Northam’s reopening plan on Wednesday and under this phase the state guidelines for reopening schools include all students may receive in-person instruction as can be accommodated with strict social distancing measures in place, which may require alternative schedules that blend in-person and remote learning for students.

Northam said this may include staggered schedules, 6-ft social distancing to the extent possible and a blend of both remote and in-person learning.

Use of communal spaces, like cafeterias, will also need to be staggered and some students may have lunch in classrooms.

Daily health screenings will be also be part of the protocol and wearing of masks by teachers and school personnel will be required if working close proximity to students. Students will be encouraged to wear masks, but not mandated to, he added.

Northam said local school divisions will have discretion on how to operationalize within each phase and may choose to offer more limited in-person options than the phase permits, if local public health conditions necessitate.

“School divisions will have flexibility to implement plans based on the needs of their localities, within the parameters of the Commonwealth’s guidance,” he said.

Lane said social distancing must also be maintained on buses.

“School divisions can put into place other mitigating strategies,” he said, adding that as much flexibility is being provided as possible.

Dr. Chris Stacy, superintendent of Tazewell County schools, said recently the county is capable of opening schools in a manner that makes safety the priority.

“Our interests lie solely in the well-being and safety of our students and staff so that they may receive the highest quality of education available,” he said. “We are taking all of the precautions that we can take, including buying PPE, replacing water fountains with bottle filling stations, and planning extra cleaning and sanitation time into the schedules. However, it will be very difficult, almost impossible, to follow the state’s guidelines in our geographic region.”

Northam on Thursday also addressed another controversy concerning the number of people allowed to visit large venues, like King’s Dominion, Busch Gardens and NASCAR races at Martinsville and Richmond.

Phase Three includes a limit of 1,000, although the venues are large enough to accommodate many more and still maintain physical distancing.

For example, Martinsville Speedway seats about 45,000 and Richmond Raceway more than 50,000.

But Northam said it is less about the crowd size than people using common areas.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com.


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