Sonia Smith, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, speaks to a journalist in her office in Chesterfield, Va., Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. After the coronavirus pandemic forced months of all-virtual schooling, some Virginia school districts had high hopes for bringing students back to school for at least some in-person classes, but with COVID-19 cases surging across the country, including in Virginia, the state's largest school systems have hit the brakes on reopening plans. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After the coronavirus pandemic forced months of online-only learning, some Virginia school districts had high hopes for bringing students back to school for some in-person classes before the end of the year. But with COVID-19 cases surging across the country — including in Virginia — the state’s largest school systems have hit the brakes on reopening plans.

School officials in Virginia Beach, Henrico County and Fairfax County announced Monday they are pausing their plans for in-person classes, citing increased virus spread in their communities.

The decisions came three days after Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced new statewide coronavirus restrictions, including limiting gatherings to 25 people and prohibiting alcohol sales at dining and drinking establishments after 10 p.m.

The number of new virus cases in Virginia has steadily increased over the past month. As of Tuesday, the state health department has reported more than 206,000 cases since the pandemic began, with at least 3,835 deaths.

Virginia Beach school officials had a phased return to in-person classes for most of their 67,000 students and started to bring back the final five grades last week. But on Monday, school officials notified parents that in-person classes will be suspended and students will return to all-virtual schooling for at least two weeks. The announcement came after the region's new coronavirus cases hit a seven-day average of about 280 cases, a number school officials said put the region in a “red zone” that prompted them to move all classes online.

Superintendent Aaron Spence said the decision is disappointing because mitigation efforts — including mandatory face masks for students and teachers — seemed effective for the younger students who'd slowly been returning to in-person classes since September.

"It was working, but we also have to be mindful that the higher the community transmission, the greater the risk to our staff and our students," he said.

In Henrico County, a district with about 49,000 students, the school board voted last month to bring students back in phases after starting the school year predominantly online-only. Students in prekindergarten through second grade were scheduled to return Nov. 30 for in-person classes. But Superintendent Amy Cashwell announced Monday the plan will be delayed until January.

“I regret the inconvenience and challenge this change in plans may pose to our families,” Cashwell said in an email. “Given the information we have today about the spread of COVID-19 in central Virginia, I believe that this adjustment is the most prudent course to protect the health and safety of our staff, students and community.”

Like other school districts across the state, Henrico has given parents the option of continuing all-virtual learning if they don't feel comfortable sending their children back.

Before Monday's announcement, Stephanie McAnally had already decided to keep her third-grader, Milo, at home for virtual learning.

“I felt that the numbers were trending upward, and I know the winter is coming and the holidays," McAnally said. “It doesn't matter how safe you are at home with your child if any children going back are not doing things recommended by the CDC. Then they're going onto a school bus and every other child is exposed to whatever they've been exposed to.”

Fairfax County — the state's largest school district, with 180,000 students — had brought back small groups of students and planned to bring back more Tuesday, including prekindergarten, kindergarten and some special education students. But on Monday, Superintendent Scott Brabrand said that plan will be put on “pause” for at least another two weeks, although the limited number of students who have been attending in-person classes will be allowed to continue.

"The current health metrics for COVID-19 cases in our community now exceed the threshold to expand our in-person learning,” Brabrand said in a letter to parents and staff.

In Chesterfield County, students have returned in phases since September for in-person classes two days per week. Sonia Smith, a high school English and African American literature teacher who is also president of the Chesterfield Education Association, said she'd hoped the school district would've pressed the pause button before the latest group of students returned last week.

“Because we are still in the middle of a global pandemic, in what is being called the third wave, it just seems to defy logic with the steady increase in numbers," she said.

Spence, the Virginia Beach superintendent, said he hopes students can return to in-person classes soon, but said that will depend on the community's willingness to follow health recommendations and the state's mask mandate.

“If people want kids in school, we need to take this more seriously,” Spence said. "People want to be angry with the superintendent, but I would say, let's work on this together.

“This is not a schools issue; this is a community issue. If we can reduce the level of transmission in our communities, we can open our schools.”


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