FALLS CHURCH, Va. (WHSV/AP) — UPDATE (2:22 p.m.):
Cropped Photo: eflon / Flickr / CC BY 2.0/MGN
Governor Ralph Northam has issued an order for all K-12 schools across Virginia to close for a minimum of two weeks in response to the continued spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.
Schools will close from Monday, March 16, through Friday, March 27, at a minimum.
According to a press release from the governor's office, all local school districts will maintain authority over specific staffing decisions to "ensure students maintain continuity of services or learning, while protecting the public health of teachers and staff."
“We are taking this action to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as possible, and to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” said Governor Northam. “I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus. This is a fluid and fast-changing situation. We will do everything possible to ensure that students who rely on school nutrition programs continue to have access to meals, and that the disruption to academics is as minimal as possible.”
Northam says Virginia Department of Education officials are working closely with school divisions and the Department of Social Services to ensure students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs are able to access those programs while schools are closed. The Department of Education will issue guidance and memos to superintendents across the Commonwealth to provide specifics about the continuity of education, school nutrition, and updated public health guidelines.
“We recognize this decision places burdens on many of our parents and families, especially for those who rely on school nutrition programs for access to healthy food for their children,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “However, we believe closing Virginia schools is in the Commonwealth’s best interest as we seek to stop the spread of COVID-19. Virginia will continue to explore and implement innovative approaches to provide meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch during this closure.”
School officials are also working to minimize disruptions to instructional time.
“The Department of Education is working closely with divisions to minimize disruptions to our students’ academic development by encouraging schools to provide students and families with educational resources throughout this time,” said Dr. James Lane, State Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We are committed to help divisions address all the implications of these closures and will seek to provide each division with maximum flexibility to address local needs as they arise, especially as it relates to make-up days.”
On Thursday, Governor Northam declared a state of emergency for Virginia, which is intended to provide increased flexibility to ease regulatory requirements and procurement rules, continue federal and multi-state coordination, and ensure continued access to critical services for the most vulnerable Virginians.
Governor Northam also halted specially-scheduled state events and conferences for 30 days, and banned out-of-state travel for state employees, with allowances for individuals in border communities.
The current situation
Earlier on Friday, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced that all schools in that state would be closing indefinitely. No cases have yet been confirmed in West Virginia, but Justice said due to limited testing availability, there likely are cases that haven't been identified.
Maryland's governor had already announced a decision to close all Maryland schools previously.
In Virginia, the Virginia Department of Health has confirmed 30 presumptive positive or positive cases of the novel coronavirus, mostly focused in the northern and eastern parts of the commonwealth.
Previously, as of Thursday, school districts around the Shenandoah Valley scheduled one-day closures for Friday and this coming Monday to allow faculty and staff time to prepare for the possibility of extended closures while deep-cleaning school buildings.
Now, all public K-12 schools will send students home until at least Friday, March 27.
This follows decisions by individual school districts in various parts of the state to take the same measure.
What about meals?
How meals and/or meal delivery will be handled for students who normally rely on free or reduced lunches is up to individual school districts across Virginia.
In the City of Harrisonburg, Harrisonburg City Public Schools announced Friday evening that they will provide bagged meals, including breakfast and lunch, to all children, regardless of income levels, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Meals will be served like a drive-through in school parking lots from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on those days.
You can find the city's meal delivery schedule, with locations, here.
What about SAT testing?
According to Tim Meyers, with the Harrisonburg school district, SAT testing for local students that was scheduled for Saturday, March 14, has been canceled, in accordance with new guidelines on school closures.
What about sports?
The Virginia High School League (VHSL) announced earlier on Friday that they were delaying the spring sports season for at least two weeks, though they said all spring state championships will stay on their originally scheduled dates for now.
What about other activities held in school facilities?
Decisions on the usage of school facilities by outside groups, like community organizations and churches, is up to individual school districts.
For Page County Public Schools, the district specifically announced that all usage of school facilities by outside groups and agencies has been canceled until at least March 29.
Other closings, cancellations, and postponements
Schools are not the only facilities closing or canceling or postponing gatherings due to the spread of COVID-19. Many places of worship have also canceled their services for this coming weekend, and many community organizations and businesses have had to make the difficult decision to cancel or postpone upcoming events.
You can find the latest closings and postponements on our website, just like you can normally rely upon on snow days, at www.whsv.com/closings.
The Wayne Theatre has canceled or rescheduled upcoming events for the rest of the month, Middle River Regional Jail has suspended all visitation for the time-being, Bridgewater Retirement Community has suspended all visitation, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has canceled all services across the state, and the CAA has canceled all competition for winter and spring sports seasons.
Big Brothers Big Sisters has also canceled the upcoming "Bowl for Kids' Sake" scheduled for next weekend.
ORIGINAL STORY (12 p.m.):
Virginia now has 30 people who have tested positive for the coronavirus, up from 17 a day ago, Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday.
Northam made the announcement Friday at a visit to a Richmond hospital. The state Department of health did not yet release any details on where the 12 new cases are located.
Northam declared a state of emergency Thursday and said he was canceling all state conferences and large events for the next 30 days. He urged local governments and private organizers to follow suit. He also announced new restrictions on travel for state workers.
Dr. Lilian Peake, the state epidemiologist, said there is so far no sign of “community spread” of the virus in Virginia.
The coronavirus has infected around 136,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,000. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people who contract it recover within weeks.
Meanwhile, schools systems in the state struggled with the decision whether to remain open. Virginia's largest school system defended its decision to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic only to capitulate hours later in the face of angry parents, exemplifying the difficult decision schools faced throughout the state.
Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand appeared at a news conference Thursday afternoon and defended the decision to stay open, even though neighboring Loudoun County and the entire state of Maryland, just across the Potomac River, announced plans for an extended closure.
By 8 p.m. Thursday, the superintendent emailed a note to all parents with a quote from the county's health director supporting his decision to stay open. She noted that all of the cases in Virginia, so far, could be traced to international travel or direct exposure to someone with the virus. Maryland, on the other hand, had seen its first case of “community spread” in which a person had contracted the illness without such a direct connection.
“Schools serve an important and vital function in our community. Keeping schools open, whenever possible, is critical at this time,” said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu. "If, and when, it is determined that our contact investigations show any connection to the school system, we would provide closure guidance and recommendations.
Brabrand did, though, announce cessation of all after-school activities, sports, and community use of the schools through April 12.
But that wasn't enough to appease worried parents. By midnight, Brabrand reversed course and closed schools Friday.
“During the past several hours we continue to hear genuine concerns from parents about keeping our schools open while the coronavirus response escalates around the country,” he wrote. “As a result, and in an abundance of caution, I believe it is prudent for FCPS to cancel school tomorrow to help ease parent, staff, and student anxiety.”
At one of the last events in the school system before the closures went into effect, bands at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church performed a concert in front of a sparsely attended crowd of parents and family members, easily less than half the attendance for a normal concert. Parents remarked that the situation reminded them of the 2002 sniper spree in the nation's capital area, when people refused to go out in public as a series of random sniper shootings claimed the lives of 10 people over a three-week span.
“Stay healthy. Stay safe,” band director Paul Vesilind told attendees as the concert concluded.
While Fairfax County schools closed, neighboring schools in Alexandria and Arlington County remained open. In other parts of the state, schools in Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties said they would close either on Friday or beginning on Monday.
A growing number of universities have suspended on-campus instruction, extended spring break, or both. Those include the University of Virginia, William & Mary, James Madison University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Longwood University, where a student tested positive for COVID-19.
Arlington National Cemetery closed to most visitors on Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but said funerals will continue as scheduled.
The cemetery announced the move in a series of tweets, citing Defense Department directives and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. It said families arriving for funerals will be asked to remain in their cars while queuing up, and that the rest of the cemetery will be open only to family pass holders.