Despite concerns expressed Tuesday by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Dr. Colin Greene, health director for the Lord Fairfax Health District, said Virginia's plans for reopening schools have not changed in recent days.
"I'm not aware of any pressure from the government to open," Greene said. "Other than what's on the news, I haven't had any input from the federal government at all."
Shenandoah County Schools Superintendent Mark Johnston said that most of the locality’s education decisions are “state-based” because the state provides most of the school division's funding.
“That being said, we want to open our schools. The problem we have here in Shenandoah County is we’re still among the highest in the state in deaths per capita and cases per capita, so for us to swing our doors wide open would just simply be negligent. And I know there are people that don’t believe what’s going on around them, but we have to be mindful of that,” he said.
Johnston added that the county is working to open schools “because it’s the right thing to do” and “we believe we can do so safely.” He noted that means the schools cannot open “until things improve in terms of cases and deaths in our area.”
“But when I go out and I see people still not wearing masks or taking it seriously, all we’re doing is prolonging the full reopening of schools in my view. That troubles me. In terms of the politicians weighing in, that’s what politicians do. In terms of the practical, pragmatic part of reopening, that’s what we’re charged with doing and that’s what we’re working on hard each day,” he said.
Johnston noted that most of the school federal funding provides programs for “disadvantaged students.” If federal money is decreased, he said that “would be cutting funding for the most vulnerable populations we serve.”
“That to me would be unconscionable,” he said.
Warren County Superintendent Chris Bellenger and Warren County School Board members did not respond to requests for inquires.
Around the state, school officials are planning to make the best decisions they can for their students in the new school year, Greene said.
School officials recognize the risk of spreading the virus, he said, but they also recognize the potential for loss of meaningful instruction should they opt for online classes.
After participating in discussion groups that have included leaders from school districts and other health districts as well as individuals from schools and the Virginia Department of Health's central office, Greene said plans are still to offer districts options for how to proceed.
"I think most districts are looking for some sort of a hybrid system," he said.
"There's not going to be a one size fits all plan," he said.
Social distancing will be a main factor in school administrators' decisions to hold in-person classes, Greene said. Space on school buses is also a big concern, he said.
Virtual classes may be a reasonable educational substitute for certain classroom subjects, he said. Other allowances may also apply on a case-by-case basis.
"The 6 feet may be mitigated to 3 feet if everyone's wearing a mask," Greene said.
This possibility relates to the advice given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the World Health Organization.
Phase 3 of the Health, Safety and Physical Distancing Recommendations in the Virginia Department of Health's phase guidance document for schools says the CDC advises that individuals maintain 6 feet of distance to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, while the World Health Organization (WHO) advises at least 1 meter (about 3 feet) between anyone present at school.
Reporter Josh Gully, email@example.com, contributed to this report.