School district faces surge issues as Youngkin lifts mandates – Chesterfield Observer

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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Ann Coker, pictured here at a School Board meeting in January of last year, was elected chair of the board last week. ASH DANIEL
In the days before Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office and promptly ended the state’s mask mandate for K-12 schoolchildren – one of nine executive orders he issued – the Chesterfield County School Board’s first meeting of 2022 frequently involved the district’s various responses to the changing nature of COVID-19.
The board’s first order of business Jan. 11 was electing two new officers to lead the five-member panel this year. Within minutes of opening the session, Bermuda District representative Ann Coker won unanimous approval as School Board chair, and Dot Heffron of the Clover Hill District was voted co-chair.
The comments of residents appearing before the board reflected ongoing friction between different camps in the community regarding CCPS’s COVID-19 protocols so far. And a presentation from schools administrators about virtual learning options showed the district’s continued efforts to grapple with the issue of maintaining some measure of continuity in students’ education, depending on families’ differing preferences.
Ernie Longworth, director of instructional innovation for Chesterfield schools, offered the board an overview of the county’s virtual options to date, beginning with the online classes it has offered for grades six through 12 for the past 17 years. In April, CCPS launched its Virtual Learning Academy for K-8 students, which also serves grades six through eight allowing student the option of Virtual Virginia or the CCPS program – and in November began a partnership with the state Department of Education’s Virtual Virginia.
Longworth explained that the county partnered with Virtual Virginia to remedy the district’s math teacher shortage, enabling in-person substitute teachers to supervise students as they are taught virtually by a math instructor. Also, Virtual Virginia allows the county another option for students who are on the waitlist to attend CCPS online.
Bruce Fillman, principal of the county’s virtual learning academy, told School Board members that almost 500 K-8 students are on the waitlist for online enrollment.
Mirroring supply-chain backlogs nationwide, the county’s waitlist for families seeking virtual enrollment options has run parallel to the surge in cases of the omicron variant, and Heffron noted that constituents have contacted her to learn more about the availability of seats in virtual courses that would allow students to pivot away from in-person classes.
Fillman told the board that there is a tight chain of succession – when a student leaves the virtual space, that spot is immediately offered to the next student on the waitlist.
Kathryn Haines, who represents the Midlothian District, asked the administrators about the future of CCPS’s online academy.
In response, Superintendent Merv Daugherty said that later this month his administration will present a proposal to the board for the county’s first K-8 virtual school for the 2022-23 academic year, a model he would hopes would be sustained by dedicated funding.
The Dale District’s Debbie Bailey said the limiting factor of virtual offerings in CCPS – and around the nation – is the severe shortage of staff.
“These national vacancies are an issue,” she said. “I mean, we have a crisis in education right now, and the reason why our virtual school is not able to expand and accept more is staffing. We don’t have the teachers. It’s not a matter or desire or will; it’s that we can’t violate the state requirements for pupil-teacher ratios. We need more teachers.”
Under the cloud of another COVID-19 surge – the uptick of cases region-wide as reported by the Virginia Department of Health – parents attending Jan. 11 meeting questioned the board and CCPS regarding the district’s response to the statistical increase of infections.
Speaking to the School Board later in the meeting, during the non-agenda comment period, Dominique Chatters asked board members about the district’s plans.
“I’d like to address the return-to-school plan – I use that term loosely, because we’re not sure if we had one,” she said. “We’ve been through a surge before, and we didn’t have a complete plan then. The expectation from some of our parents … is that we should have had a better plan for returning to school after the break.”
She added: “Our numbers are extremely high, and so it goes into the transparency aspect of: If you did have a plan or you do have a plan, communicating that to all of us would help. We wouldn’t be speculating.”
Another frequent attendee and commenter at the board meetings, Mike Karabinos, a parent of two Clover Hill District students, suggested that the school system should tighten safety protocols to stem transmission of the coronavirus, an opinion that others in the chamber vocally opposed.
One of rules governing the School Board, Karabinos said from the podium, “asks that you be informed. Look at the needs. Omicron is surging. CCPS should be providing tests. When a kid comes to the nurse’s clinic with a cough, swab them on site.”
From the back of the meeting chamber two women – Nancy DiFranco and Anne Taydus, also frequent commenters like Karabinos – shook their heads.
“No!” Taydus shouted.
Seemingly in response, Karabinos shouted into the microphone at the podium facing the board: “We lack the backbone to make the COVID vaccine part of the list of require vaccines.”
The landscape ahead of Chesterfield officials is very likely to change in the coming days as Youngkin’s executive order takes effect Jan. 24, allowing parents the option to exercise their preference for children’s masking or not while at school. Also, the mandate requiring state employees to be vaccinated will no longer be in effect.
A report in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias predicting that the roadmap for school districts is expected to become complicated as the governor’s orders face a likely legal test.
Daugherty announced that he will present his 2022-23 budget proposal during the Jan. 25 School Board budget work session, and that the  School Board will hold community town halls to gather community feedback.
The dates and time are:
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