Final decisions on how to reopen public schools in Virginia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be left up to local school boards, a state official said Thursday.

Clark Mercer, Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief of staff, outlined updated guidance for Virginia schools during the governor’s regular update on COVID-19-related issues. On June 10, the state Department of Education issued detailed information on how schools should impose social distancing, cleaning and other measures to stem the spread of the virus when classes resume this fall.

It proposes phased reopening and would likely prompt most schools to begin classes remotely. The guidance also specified that all divisions must submit reopening plans to the state.

“It has been represented [that] the guidance is law to the localities. That is not the case,” Mercer said. “It is intended to inform the discussions happening at the local level, but it does not mandate any one particular approach. Guidance is not law. This is up to your local school boards to decide how they’re going to open responsibly.”

Mercer said the state welcomes input but urged anyone with concerns or questions to speak directly with local school board members.

“The final decisions about reopening are squarely in the hands of local school boards. Local public health conditions, community concerns and practical facility constraints have to be taken into account in these school reopening decisions,” Mercer said. “We believe our local leaders are best positioned to do that thoughtfully.”

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, applauded Thursday’s announcement.

“I am glad DOE recognizes the need to grant our local school boards as much discretion and flexibility as possible, but acknowledge this is certainly a logistical challenge as they make important decisions over the next few weeks,” Pillion said in a written statement. “We know that Southwest Virginia is not comparable to northern Virginia or other regions of the Commonwealth and should not be held to the same restrictions when it comes to reopening our schools in a safe and responsible manner.”

While some areas, including Northern Virginia around Washington, D.C., some coastal cities and Richmond have reported thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths, the number of cases in this area is significantly smaller.

The 10 counties and two cities of far Southwest Virginia have reported less than 240 total cases since March and 35 in the past two weeks, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Bristol has reported four total cases and no new cases in more than a month.

Mercer addressed the regional case disparity during his remarks.

“Virginia is a very diverse state. We have seen the infection rates are different throughout the commonwealth. … As we reopen and as school boards grapple with their ability to reopen, teaching remotely, then you take all these things into consideration,” Mercer said.

On Tuesday, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said decisions about schools should be made locally. He was responding to questions from U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all. I think you have to look at it at the local level, the county level, the regional level, the city level, the state level,” Fauci said. “So we often say, ‘In America, should you or should you not be open?’ I mean, that’s almost a non-question because, for such a large country, [it is] so heterogeneous, and [we have] such a range of involvement of this virus in different parts of the country.”

Last Thursday, the Tazewell County School Board adopted a resolution urging the state to allow each division to decide how best to reopen schools and said it would consider legal action to “regain the authority to open, operate, or close our schools based on what the situation is in Tazewell County,” Chairman David Woodard said last week in a written statement.

In a June 18 letter to Northam, Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, called the state’s school reopening plan “gubernatorial overreach” and said the state Constitution places authority for those decisions with local school boards.

Last week, superintendents from Southwest Virginia submitted a proposal to the state seeking to modify Centers for Disease Control guidance on social distancing and other restrictions for areas without significant community spread.

“I am excited that it appears that the collaboration between superintendents from our region and [state superintendent] Dr. Lane and his staff is continuing to be productive,” Bristol Virginia Superintendent Keith Perrigan said. “The CDC provides guidance for schools in low-transmission communities, and we are anxious to see that added to the VDOE guidance. It appears that we might be headed in the right direction.”

Mercer urged divisions to consider all CDC guidelines in planning to reopen. Perrigan said he welcomes the change.

“I don’t want the VDOE to assume risk for decisions we make in Bristol based on our local health metrics,” Perrigan said. “However, I also don’t want VDOE to add unnecessary risk to Bristol by only offering guidance that focuses on high-transmission areas.”

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC | Facebook.com/david.mcgee.127

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