In a rare example of state leaders in Richmond actually listening to the arguments of the individual counties, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's administration conceded last week that local school boards do, in fact, have the authority to reopen schools in the manner they determine is safe and appropriate for their location.
It was a surprising concession from the Democratic governor, whose policies often seem to be designed with Northern Virginia — and only Northern Virginia — in mind.
The Tazewell County School Board, along with several other school divisions across the state, recently passed resolutions 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.
The resolution in Tazewell County also said Northam does not have the authority in the state Constitution to close schools, and said the school division would seek legal advise for a possible court remedy.
Northam had previously indicated that school divisions must submit a reopening plan that has to be approved by the state.
However, Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, appeared to backtrack on that statement last week, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. However, he said the recommendations are not intended to be viewed as "law" for the localities.
“That is not the case," Mercer said during one of Northam's virtual press briefings last week." It is intended to inform the discussions happening at the local level, but it does not mandate one particular approach (to reopening). 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,” Mercer said. “The final decision rests squarely in the hands of local school boards.”
Good. That's the way it is supposed to be. Rural areas should not be forced to follow the same guidelines as the population centers of Northern Virginia.
High-speed broadband may be readily available in Northern Virginia, but that isn't the case in parts of Southwest Virginia. As area parents can attest, remote learning has been extremely difficult in those areas where high-speed broadband access isn't readily available. That's why the Tazewell County School Board recently had to install public Wifi stations at all 14 of its schools. The new WiFi access points allow students and families who do not have access at their homes to use the free public WiFi in the parking lot areas of the schools.
And it's not just broadband. You still can't even get a strong cellphone signal in some parts of the region.
At the end of the day, the ultimate goal that everyone should be working toward — including local school officials, Northam and other state leaders — is finding a way to get students safely back in school to allow for a resumption of the learning process.
But one size doesn't fit all. And local school divisions should have more control over how they accomplish this all-important goal.