Tuesday, Richmond County Public Schools did another about-face, scrapping its plan reopen with full-time classroom instruction for all students, and went back to its original plan to start the 2020-21 school year with a staggered schedule.

Last week, in light of new guidance that was released days earlier, RCPS made the abrupt decision to use a three-foot social distancing protocol and have all students, except those who opted for full-time distance learning, return to school every day.

"We are [now] returning to the alternate-week-of-instruction plan that we had and to the six-foot distancing," Dr. Smith said. He said the decision was based data that came forward during a discussion with personnel at the Virginia Department of Health and during a press conference that Governor Northam held on Tuesday.

The information revealed that “the Eastern part of Virginia has seen an uptick of COVID-19 communicability and that includes Richmond County to some extent although Richmond County is far more stable than other localities on the eastern side of the state. So, we’re going to pay attention to that and make the appropriate recommendations to the school board,” he explained.

Smith said it was the first time he had heard this information and given that his expertise is education, not virology, he’s doing his best to solicit information from those who are health experts.

When asked what data VDH was discussing with the school system and how new it was, Dr. Richard Williams, VDH district director for Three Rivers said, “In Three Rivers [which includes the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula], we have had increasing case counts in most our jurisdiction over the past three weeks, including this week. Although our case counts have not risen as steeply as some of the metropolitan areas of Hampton Roads, we are watching trends very carefully.”

“Most schools will be guided in their risk acceptance and mitigation posture by level or viral community transmission,” he added

Although Richmond County is still considered stable, and although the uptick was to some extent predictable, it’s a bit more than I’m comfortable with. So, returning to the original plan is a safe place for us to start the school year at,” said Smith.

He reiterated that this is an extremely fluid situation. When asked how confident he is that this latest decision is the final one, he replied, “not at all.”

“This is not the last chapter in this virus novel. We’re going to continue to evolve and shape and adapt as we need to,” Smith added.

The following article was included in the 7/15/2020 edition of the Northern Neck News. Since then, the above changes have been made.

Last week, Virginia released new guidelines for schools with reduced social distancing protocols, and it was a game-changer for Richmond County Public Schools, which immediately changed course on how it will reopen. 

Since March, RCPS planned to start the 20-21 school year with a staggered schedule. Under that plan, half of the students would attend school for a full week while the other half of students used distant learning, and each week the groups would alternate. Doing so cut capacity in the classrooms to ensure students would be spaced six feet apart.

But new guidance from the CDC and WHO indicates that six-foot spacing guidelines should be used when they’re feasible. If not, schools should use a three-foot spacing rule along with masks as long as students aren’t showing symptoms. 

Furthermore, Virginia is leaving the final questions about reopening squarely in the hands of local school boards. And that says it all, RCPS superintendent Dr. James Smith told the Board of Supervisors.

“It clarified in my mind that we need to bring students back into the classroom as soon as possible. And under these guidelines that’s exactly what we’re going to do on August 17—nix the staggered schedule and open schools to 100% of students who want to attend with a three-foot social distancing protocol—unless something comes from the governor’s office that  counters those plans, said Smith.

He explained that advice from the CDC has always factored into the school system’s decision-making process and noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics provided similar guidance, supporting spacing as close as three feet if cloth face coverings are worn.  

Furthermore RCPS, consulted with Dr. Richard Williams, district director of Virginia Department of Health’s Three Rivers District, to get clarity on the new guidance. 

“His response to me was as clear and responsible of any conversation I have had since March 13, which is—everything is a risk and you have to operate the schools in a decision-making matrix of what is the most reasonable risk that you can take. The virus is going to exist in our schools and in the community for however long that it’s going to be here and it’s going to dictate how to function.” 

How will RCPS keep student safe?

Smith said RCPS will use safety protocols including wellness checks, social distancing and mask wearing.

The school system will have a detailed screening procedure that begins at the bus stop. Bus drivers will have infrared thermometers to take students’ temperature before they board. On the bus, there will be one child per seat alternating aisle to window, but children from the same household may sit together. The director of transportation is trying to figure out how to make that spacing protocol work and to decide whether there will need to be multiple runs along on bus route.

Students who are dropped off will be checked as they’re leaving the vehicle. No one with a fever, whether student or staff, will be allowed into the school.

All students will receive masks and they’ll be required when riding the bus or moving around the schools. Students will be allowed to remove their masks while seated. Most of the RCPS classrooms are more than 700 square feet, which will allow the desks in many classrooms to be spaced more than three feet apart, according to Smith. The plan is to get maximum separation, he said. 

Teachers will try to maintain a six-foot distance at all times.

When asked how staff are going to get small children to keep masks on, Smith said,  “We’re going to do the best we can.” 

He explained that the mask requirement applies when its “developmentally appropriate.” What that term means hasn’t been strictly defined yet, but RCPS officials are aware that it may not be appropriate to enforce mask policies on young children and students with special needs. 

Further, Smith said Dr. Williams explained “in clear detail that virus research clearly shows that young children are not receptive to the virus and components of the virus are not as applicable to young children as they are to older individuals because of maturity and how the body matures.”

Smith said RCPS has not seen any such research firsthand but has had and continues to have conversations with health and state-level schools officials to stay on top of the latest  research. 

Dr. Williams said his recommendations were based on studies about  Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE2) which is a cell surface enzyme that binds to COVID-19 and allow the virus to enter through nasal cells.

“There is evidence that ACE2 is expressed less in younger children and increases with age. This is a possible factor to help explain the worldwide observations that younger children seem to be less susceptible to COVID-19 infection than older children and adults,” said Williams

Williams said the reasons children are apparently less susceptible to COVID-19 are most likely more complex than this, involving other immune system and host factors, but the ACE2 research contributed to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations concerning school operations. 

“I would note that much remains unknown about the [coronavirus] and more research on almost every aspect of the pandemic needs to be done,” he added. 

COVID-19 isn’t the only risk kids face

Part of what guided RCPS’ decision to change the reopening plan is they’ve subscribed to the idea that they must consider the risks of children staying at home.

“Domestic violence is problematic. Student nutrition is problematic. Student mental health can be problematic. And their physical health can be problematic,” he said. 

These risk have been a recent talking point in the national conversation about reopening schools, but Smith said he doesn’t have any evidence students in Richmond County are facing any of these issues.

“But it is rational to believe and understand that’s it beneficial for children to be in school, to have good nutrition. We have mitigated some of that through our meals’ program but there’s no substitute for coming into school in a classroom with a caring adult teacher and having all of the resources we offer. Many of our children face very challenging circumstances. Those are the ones I worry about and am concerned with their health during this time,” he said.

For RCPS, politics not a factor

The Trump administration has threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t fully reopen, and has said it’ll alter the health protocols to suit the plan of getting all student back in schools, turning the issue of reopening into a political matter.

“I’ve been disappointed by how that has been handled,” said Smith. “But as far as the recommendations that I’ve been making, they have been based on the science and guidance from the experts in the field.”

“I’m not going to opine on the whether the science or the advice from the WHO or CDC is politically motivated,” he added.

“I believe Virginia has proven that the measures we’ve used thus far are working. To listen to the VDH, the CDC and the WHO, I think that’s an intelligent way to  approach whatever recommendation that we have to make in terms of restarting schools,” he added.

The original plan is not dead

Although the RCPS scrapped plans to reopen with a staggered schedule, they’re keeping the option as a backup plan..

“If there’s an uptick in the numbers of students or staff that get sick from COVID-19, the school system will quickly consider—in consultation with VDH—increasing social distancing to six feet, slashing classroom capacity to 50 percent and bus capacity of 30 percent, as well as starting the alternate-week scheduling,” said Smith. 

“I think this is about as good of a plan as we can do for right now,” said Smith. 

RCPS is also offering the Richmond County Home Alert, a program that will rely on Virtual Virginia, and offer students the option of full-time distance learning if they’re not comfortable coming to school. So far, about 75 families have signed up.

“So we are doing the best we can to satisfy both choices as well as we can,” said Smith. And families still have time to decide which route they want to take. But given the restrictions for the food program, it’s not clear if the guidelines will allow the school to provide meals for distant-learning students.

RCPS hasn’t set a deadline on that decision so families still have time to decide .

Considering the staff’s risk

As the plan to fully reopen was made suddenly last week, the news hasn’t circulated through the staff and RCPS hasn’t heard their feedback. But they were notified that new guidelines would be coming out, said Smith.

Based on the science that’s currently available, school staff will face the greatest risks of having schools fully populated, but Smith thinks they’ll view it as part their duty to serve children.

“I believe as a profession educators have always stepped up to the challenge of performing their duties with a great amount of responsibility and professionalism. And I believe nothing in this is going to change that,” he said. 

“In making a decision like this you still have to weigh the risks. This is very fluid conversation in understanding what the risks are and how they affect different age groups. We’re going to try to balance it using protocols to mitigate whatever risks exist.  But we’re hand-in-hand with doctors, dentists, and store clerks. They are mitigating risks every day and we can do the same thing. As we understand more, I believe we can mitigate risks better,” he added.


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