The start of the 2020-2021 school year brought many challenges after the abrupt shutdown of all places of learning in March by Governor Ralph Northam. Meanwhile, schools state-wide looked for ways to bring students back safely. As the beginning of the new school year approached, students were unable to return to school because it was deemed unsafe by the Chesterfield County School Board and Health Committee. After a virtual start, the school Board ruled that students could anticipate their return based on their specific cohort, introducing a hybrid learning model. In order to ensure that all the students return to physical buildings in a safe manner, the board put measures into place using guidance from a panel of trained health professionals and a system of metrics.
Upon the start of the school year, CCPS School Board Chair Debbie Bailey expressed her concerns as the fate of the CCPS system fell into the hands of the five members of the CCPS School Board, none of which have an extensive knowledge of public health. Bailey shared,“I was disappointed that during the pandemic the government closed the schools with no guidance as to how to reopen them. There was so much data, information, and misinformation coming at our board that we needed experts in our public health field to guide and advise us as to when it’s safe to return the students to school.” Addressing these concerns, CCPS Superintendent Dr. Mervin Daugherty established a panel of medical experts, known as the Health Committee, qualified to dig into epidemiology and make decisions regarding the safety of the students of CCPS.
During the School Board meeting on October 27, 2020, the Health Committee voted to send Cohort 4 back to school, despite the rising cases in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) created a system of color-coded metrics that were put into place to guide these professionals in their decisions. These metrics assessed risk based on synthesized data from new cases and positivity rates. According to the metrics, Chesterfield County was in the orange, the color that the School Board had decided would indicate a pause in the plan to phase back the cohorts. However, in a 3-2 vote, the committee went against its own policy with its decision to move forward.
They based their decision to send students back despite the metrics on various factors. Although the number of new cases and transmission rates brought the metrics into the orange, identified as the moderate risk zone, the committee looked at school-based factors as well, including hospitalizations and the number of people infected in the school building, which led to the decision that Chesterfield County is a low risk zone. The committee took into effect that necessary precautions to return students to the building were put into place for CCPS. These measures include contact tracing, which notifies students and their families if they come into contact with someone who has contracted the virus, one-way hallways, staggered lunches and dismissals, adequate spacing, and approved cleaning practices.
With this in mind, the majority of the CCPS Health Committee deemed it safe for the return of Cohort 4. The decision to send students back while in the orange zone sparked disagreement among many members of the Midlo community. Following the vote to send students back to school, Midlothian School Board Representative Kathryn Haines, who voted against sending students back, stated, “What we’ve done today is disregard our metrics. The inconsistency we’re showing today is affecting our credibility as a board.” Many families in CCPS agree, as they argue that orange is still orange, and a risk remains for the students who return.
On November 9, 2020, students with the last names starting with letters A-K in Cohort 4 returned to the school building for the first time since March 2020. While in the hybrid model, students wore masks, practiced adequate social distancing, and sanitized between class changes, as enforced by teachers and administration. The second half of Cohort 4 (last names L-Z) will return on November 12, 2020. During the recent School Board meeting on November 10, 2020, Dr. Daugherty, in direct response to a question from a board member, shared that shutdowns would be on a class-to-class or school-by-school basis before a complete county shut down. Going forward, he will have the authority to close schools accordingly, as CCPS will continue to keep an eye on the metrics and adapt to the unprecedented situation. As of November 11, 2020, one Midlothian High staff member and one Midlothian High student have tested positive since the cohorts returned to the building.
To track the latest positive COVID-19 cases in CCPS, click here.