Northam visits Gloucester — an in-person learning success story during pandemic — to thank teachers as schools reopen


GLOUCESTER, Va. (WAVY) — Gov. Ralph Northam visited Gloucester County on Monday, where thousands of students have been in the classroom for months now with very few coronavirus cases overall. It comes as his deadline for in-person instruction approaches.

Northam wants all school districts to offer at least some in-person learning by next Monday, March 15. While not every school will meet the goal, state officials say every division has submitted a plan to get students back to the classroom soon.

Ahead of that deadline, the governor visited Bethel Elementary in Gloucester on Monday.

Gloucester schools started to phase students into the classrooms back in September, and thousands of students have been in classrooms on a hybrid model since the end of last year.

During the visit, Northam learned more about Gloucester’s in-person learning process and talked with some of the teachers. Bethel Elementary has had an especially successful reopening process with zero reported transmission cases since bringing students back in the fall.

The district and county spent more than $2.3 million for new safety measures, including additional school buses, clean air technology and personal protective equipment.

During Monday’s visit, Northam thanked teachers and popped into classrooms to say “hello” to students.

“Seeing the enthusiasm of the teachers, and the staff and especially the students, they’re so happy to be back and their excited to be back with their friends and their teachers so it’s pretty neat,” said Governor Northam.

So far, fewer than 100 students and 63 employees have contracted the virus.

“We’ve just been consistent. We knew we wanted kids in. We knew that we were in a pandemic but we felt that there has to be a way that we can do this as safely as possible and we’ve done that and it’s worked out pretty well for us,” said Dr. Walter Clemons, superintendent of Gloucester County Public Schools.

Clemons said the community has done a great job with following safety guidelines.

“It takes the community letting us know also, about when there are positive cases so we can keep it from coming in our schools and spreading in our schools. Right now, that has been a real success story. We really haven’t seen it in our schools.”

School leaders partnered with Riverside Health Systems and the Three Rivers health district to vaccinate staff. Nearly half of the school employees have received the vaccine.

Clemons said the district is in the process of getting more staff vaccinated. He believes the vaccinations provide an extra layer of comfort for teachers, and cases have remained low.

“We’ve done an incredible job of keeping the spread and transmission from occurring within the schools.”

Looking ahead to the fall, state education officials say at least some virtual learning will likely remain.

“We would definitely give some families that option if families are still uncomfortable, and some might be still uncomfortable come this fall,” said Virginia’s Education Secretary Atif Qarni. “So definitely we want to give that flexibility to the school divisions.”

Secretary Qarni said we will likely see the next two academic years look a little different than the pre-pandemic normal.

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