By Brandon Martin
Last week, school divisions in Henry County and Martinsville laid out their respective plans to approach instruction and reopen in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
While the plans differ in specifics, they each incorporate a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning to minimize the number of students attending on any given day.
Later, President Donald Trump and other federal officials hinted that schools which don’t reopen fully could lose federal funding.
In a July 10 social media post, Trump wrote “Not even close! Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!”
A related earlier post stated that a fall reopening was important to children and families. It also stated that Trump “may cut off funding if not open!”
Although the president did not clarify the type of funds that could be withheld, Kayleigh McEnany, a White House spokesman, said that future coronavirus relief funds could be on the table.
She said that the president wants to “substantially bump up money for education,” but, she added that would be only for schools that reopen.
Monica Hatchett, director of Communications and Organizational Learning, said the county school division will work in the best interests of the students, regardless of funding.
“While the change in funding would be detrimental, Henry County Public Schools will operate on a schedule to best meet the needs of students,” Hatchett said. “We are working in conjunction with the local office (Virginia Department) of Health to ensure that the decisions we make are the safest possible.”
The Henry County School Board recently approved an application for approximately $2 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.
Hatchett said those funds are important to prevention measures. However, “we have been very fortunate to receive several donations that will help in this area,” she said.
Still, “the support CARES will bring to our schools is of great importance,” Hatchett added.
Parker Gunn, coordinator of Communications and Community Outreach for the city school division, said “at this time, we have not been presented enough information to assess the repercussions of the potential loss of funding. As we are given more information about this, we will gladly reach out with a better understanding of how it could impact” the school system.
When asked if school divisions had been notified of federal funds potentially being withheld before they released their reopening plans, Hatchett said “we have been very fortunate to receive regular (weekly and sometimes bi-weekly) updates from VDOE as we all work together to prepare for the start of school. Certainly, information evolves as this very fluid situation progresses.”
The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has provided guidelines throughout the pandemic along with other organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the health department and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The guidelines, however, have been seemingly inconsistent throughout the school shutdowns.
In a joint statement that included the American Academy of Pediatrics, many education unions and superintendent groups derided calls to withhold funding from school divisions that implement the hybrid instruction plan.
“Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” they wrote. “Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person full-time would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.”
The Trump administration, however, cites an earlier call by the American Academy of Pediatrics to strive to start the academic year with their students “physically present in school.”
Daniel Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association (AASA), issued a statement in April criticizing the Trump administration and the inconsistency of the guidelines for reopening.
He said that state and local leaders want the federal government to provide “guidance that is clear, concise and applicable, not guidance that leaves them scratching their heads and wondering, ‘But what does that really mean for schools?’”
One question that remains for schools surrounds liability, in case a child contracts the virus due to contact in the schools.
“Our staff is working closely with our insurance company to ensure that we are meeting and/or exceeding safety standards as we work to return to school safely,” Hatchett said.
Both divisions are slated to reopen on Aug. 10.