Department of Education issues revised reopening guidelines

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) on Monday released revised guidelines for reopening schools across the Commonwealth. While the updates ease some of the stringent requirements, the burden still falls on the school districts to come up with a workable plan.

Most notable among the adjustments is three-feet distancing: when the still-preferred six feet is not practicable, three feet plus face coverings will be permitted. This departure from the incessant demand of six feet of separation comes on the heels of recommendations from both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).  

That change in policy could make the dilemma of how to provide bus services to Campbell County Public School (CCPS) students more manageable. District Superintendent Dr. Robert Johnson pointed out in an interview with the Altavista Journal (prior to the guideline revisions) that under the six-foot rule, “Ten students per bus is not practical or sustainable.”

Another noticeable aspect of the new policy comes from the AAP’s recommendation that face masks may not be “developmentally appropriate and feasible” for elementary and younger children. It likewise acknowledges that those who have breathing troubles or are incapacitated should not wear masks.

The AAP also points out that masks could be problematic in certain other cases. “For certain populations, the use of cloth face coverings by teachers may impede the education process. These include students who are deaf or hard of hearing, students receiving speech/ language services, young students in early education programs, and English-language learners.”

The AAP is even more emphatic when it comes to the importance of getting students back into the classroom physically and not just through distance learning. “The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” (bold type original to the AAP document). The statement pointed to “evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”

Ultimately, both the nitty-gritty of implementing back-to-school policy and the decision of how closely to follow the Commonwealth’s guidelines – or not – rests with each school district to determine.

“This process leaves the final decision about reopening squarely in the hands of local school boards,” according to a letter from State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver and State Superintendent James Lane to superintendents and school leaders. Districts may opt to depart from the guidelines provided that they communicate their plan to the VDOE.

For more information on the AAP advice, see “COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry.” (https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/)

The letter from Oliver and James, along with the phase guidance for schools, can be found at https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/governor-of-virginia/pdf/Final-Phase-Guidance-for-Virginia-Schools-6.9.20.pdf.