|On Tuesday, June 9, Governor Northam and state Superintendent James Lane announced Virginia’s “Return to School” guidance. The guidance asks school divisions to consider important aspects of reopening beyond instruction including social-emotional support and opportunities to promote equity.
Voices for Virginia’s Children, along with Families Forward Virginia and Virginia PTA, released a parent survey that found parents were concerned about seeking balance between working and caring for their children during the “safer at-home” phases in Virginia. The Virginia PTA released a follow-up survey with member parents and their concerns with returning students to school in the fall.
In the coming weeks, school boards, principals and elected officials should seek feedback from parents and school staff on the reopening of schools. As school divisions begin to formalize plans, elected officials at the state and local level should consider these priorities to respond to the needs of economically disadvantaged and vulnerable students:
- Continue to seek the perspectives of parents and students in finalizing return-to-school plans. School divisions should host virtual town halls or facilitate platforms where parents and students can share feedback and solutions. Use these opportunities to engage with those directly impacted by plans and before making the final budget or policy decisions for your school year.
- Prioritize in-person instruction for the youngest students, ELL students, and those with special needs. School divisions should prioritize in-person instruction for these groups as virtual learning is more challenging for these students. For young learners, instruction is enhanced by interactions with other students. School divisions should assess the needs of students who will be not included in in-person instruction and invest in meeting those needs, such as access to meals, computer devices and internet access.
- Include robust plans and services to meet the social-emotional and mental health needs of students. The state guidance documents prompt a number of useful considerations in addition, school divisions should make specific plans to train staff and teachers to identify and respond to mental health needs. Additionally, schools should assess if they have enough support staff (including teams of counselors, social workers, psychologists) to meet student needs, and/or how they can adopt partnerships with other community mental health professionals to address other student needs.
- Ramp up family engagement activities to support parents in their instructional role and to facilitate social and safety net supports. Parents are playing a bigger role than ever in their children’s education by supporting at-home or virtual instruction. This role comes on top of parents’ and caregivers’ current anxieties created by uncertainty around health risks and the financial outlook. Teachers are often step up to support students outside the classroom but also have additional responsibilities on their plate. Schools divisions should repurpose positions or hire additional staff to serve as family engagement specialists, parent liaisons, or social workers to connect with parents to help them navigate virtual learning, new on-line communications and facilitate accessing community services and supports.
- Create partnerships with community-based child care programs to ensure parents’ child care needs are met. The possibility of staggered schedules in the coming year will put many parents in a difficult position of meeting their work demands and caring for their children. Days not in school will mean that some parents need to send their children to full-day child care providers, an additional expense they may not be able to afford. To facilitate accessing child care and to help parents afford child care, schools should connect with community-based child care programs. Guidance for safety in child care is similar to what is expected of schools. Coordinating with licensed child care partners such as the YMCA or others can meet the needs of working families and further the learning connections and supports for vulnerable students. Additional funding to school division or parents will be needed to facilitate these partnerships.
The additional priorities will likely require additional resources. Elected officials at the federal, state and local level should consider additional funding, such as another COVID-19 relief package for child care and educational expenses, or the dedication of CARES Act funds to technology, education and child care needs. In addition, state and federal lawmakers should expand paid family leave options so that parents can better balance caring for children and protecting their employment.