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School districts across Hampton Roads are deciding how to begin the 2020-21 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Although school officials say they want children to be in class to begin the year, most are opting for a full virtual start. 

The decisions have come amid a rise in COVID-19 case rates across the region. Some districts which previously hoped to bring children back to school have reversed course and say a remote start is the safest route right now.

As of Wednesday afternoon at 2:15 p.m., Isle of Wight County Schools and Mathews County Public Schools are exceptions and will begin the year with a limited reopening. 

Other districts say they'll launch a phased reopening once case rates decline. Parents will have the option to continue virtual learning if they don't feel comfortable sending their children back to campuses. 


The Chesapeake school board voted for a virtual start on July 27. The decision was attributed to high case rates across Hampton Roads.

Elementary students could return to school in October and middle and high school students in November if positivity rates improve. District officials said they will regularly consult with the Virginia School Health Advisory Board and the Chesapeake Health Department to determine when it will be safe to begin in-person teaching.

If campuses do reopen, families who still don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school can opt for 100% virtual learning.

More information about Chesapeake City Public Schools’ fall opening plan is here.


Gloucester County Public Schools will teach students virtually for the first nine weeks of the year.

School board members and Superintendent Walter Clemons made the decision after consulting with the Three Rivers Health District. Board members said in-person instruction is most desirable, but not safe yet.

The district will soon release more details about the virtual plans and device availability.

Here is more information about the decision.


Hampton’s school board voted to adopt a virtual start to the year. Superintendent Jeffrey Smith supported a 100% virtual start for the first nine weeks, saying it’s necessary to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff.

Smith’s proposed opening plan will involve live teacher lessons via Zoom and independent online learning modules. Students will be expected to attend virtual classes, and they will receive traditional grades.

The district will provide devices for students in all grades and plans to use federal funds to pay for broadband costs for low-income families who don’t have Wi-Fi.

District officials hope to transition students to in-person teaching later in the year. It may involve a hybrid model where students spend a few days a week on campus.

More information about Smith’s recommendation is available here.

Isle of Wight

Unlike other districts, Isle of Wight County Schools will bring some students back for in-person classes when school starts in September.

The school board first voted to let all elementary and middle school students return to school part-time. But the board rescinded that decision and unanimously voted to let just kindergarten through third grade students return to campuses two days a week.

All students with disabilities and intensive support needs can also return part-time — as can high schoolers participating in certain Career and Technical Education programs.

Parents of K-3 students can still opt for virtual learning for the first semester if they’re concerned about the coronavirus. Students in other grades will learn remotely throughout the first nine weeks of the year.

Some board members were in favor of letting more students return to school. They noted that students learn better in-person. Other members, including Victoria Hulick, were worried about health consequences.

"For me, it tears me into pieces," Hulick said. "And I know that in-person education is better than not. But I’ve gotten a lot of community members -- older ones -- who are concerned about community spread."

Here is more information about Isle of Wight County Schools’ reopening.


Mathews County Public Schools will take a unique approach to bringing students back.

Each school will divide K-8 students into groups for the first two weeks. One group will meet with teachers on August 31 and September 8. The other students will return to campus September 2 and September 10.

K-8 students will learn virtually for the rest of the first nine weeks. The district will make arrangements for students without internet access.

District officials say the limited reopening gives students an opportunity to meet their teachers. Families can opt out of the two-day return.

Here are more details about Mathews’ plan.

Newport News

Newport News Public Schools will teach students virtually throughout the first semester until Nov. 2. 

The district's learning plan will involve four days of virtual learning with teacher support. One other day will be for independent learning. 

District officials will consider a transition to in-person classes later in the year once case rates improve. 

More information about Newport News Public Schools’ options are here.


In late July, Norfolk Public Schools became the first district to announce a complete virtual opening for the first nine weeks. The decision came as Norfolk has recently experienced higher COVID-19 case rates than other Hampton Roads localities.

District officials said remote learning may extend beyond the first nine weeks if widespread transmission of the virus continues.

Norfolk Public Schools, with about 30,000 students, plans to use Virtual Virginia — a learning program with more than 100 courses across all grade levels. Students will also have schedules that include daily interactions with teachers and art and music sessions.

"We remain committed to offering an excellent, equitable education to every one of our students," Superintendent Sharon Byrdsong said in a news release.

The district will consult with the Norfolk Public Health Department to determine when in-person teaching is safe.

Additional information about Norfolk’s opening plan is here.


The Portsmouth school board on July 29 unanimously voted to start the year from home. Board members attributed the decision to high transmission rates of the coronavirus.

Virtual learning could run for the first nine weeks. Students will have assigned times to log on and participate in online classroom lessons. If they can’t make those times, they can access recorded lessons at any time of day.

The district will provide computers to students. Wi-Fi hotspots will be available for families who don’t have internet.

Board members will later decide what to do for the rest of the year.

Here is more information about Portsmouth Public Schools’ plans and resources for families.


The Poquoson school board is scheduled to vote on a opening plan August 11. The district is considering a full virtual start and hybrid models where students learn in-person some days per week and virtually other days.

Parents will have the option of remote learning for the entire first semester if they’re concerned about the coronavirus.

"It has been our goal all along to get our students and staff safely back to school as soon as possible," Superintendent Arty Tillet wrote in a letter to families. “"We continue to collaborate with local and state health officials for guidance on these most important decisions."

You can read more about the Poquoson’s opening options here.


The Suffolk school board will vote on an opening plan August 6. 

In a letter to parents, Superintendent John Gordon III said he will recommend the board support a virtual start. 

"This recommendation aligns with our values of prioritizing the health and safety of our students and staff as we continue to monitor the current health conditions of the city of Suffolk and our region," he wrote.

Gordon III said the district's learning plan will feature teachers as the primary mode of instruction along with several online platforms. 

Here is Gordon III's letter. 

Virginia Beach

After several hours of debate, Virginia Beach’s school board on July 28 voted 8-3 for a virtual opening.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools did not commit to a 9-week period for online learning. Instead, the district — with 67,000 students — will remain virtual as long as positive test rates across the city remain above 10%, or if there are 265 or more cases a day.

"We all are in agreement our children work best face-to-face and need to be in school," Superintendent Aaron Spence said. "That said, I am pleased the school division has come to a decision that focuses on data-driven recommendations for when that can happen."

If schools do reopen, parents will have the option of continuing virtual learning for the rest of the first semester.

More information about the opening is available here.

Williamsburg-James City County

Williamsburg-James City County schools is another district with plans for virtual learning for the first nine weeks of the year.

In a letter to parents, Superintendent Olwen Herron said she was disappointed with the move. But with increasing rates of positive cases, it was necessary, she said.

"We remain committed to providing the rigorous education that all our students need and deserve," she wrote.

Herron said students will receive live instruction from teachers and independent assignments and activities. Assignments will be graded, and attendance will be monitored.

When it’s able, the district will bring individuals and small numbers of students into schools for academic assessments and evaluations. Social distancing requirements and deep cleaning practices will be in place.

You can see Herron’s letter here.

York County

York County School Division plans on keeping children home for the first nine weeks of the year.

In a letter to families and staff, School Board Chair James Richardson said that in-person education is better for students’ academic and social well-being. It also allows for easier childcare options for working parents.

"However, I do not believe it is worth the risk to the students and staff or our greater community to forge ahead with in-person school at this time," he wrote.

Richardson said the board directed Superintendent Victor Shandor to develop plans for bringing back students within the first nine weeks if it’s deemed safe.

Priority will go to “vulnerable learners,” including students with disabilities, English learners, and students in grades Pre-K to 3. Other grade levels will follow in a phased reopening.

Parents will have a choice to keep their children in virtual learning.

Here is Richardson’s letter.

All of the school divisions mentioned in this post are members of the Hampton Roads Educational and Telecommunications Association, which holds the license to WHRO Public Media. 

This post will be updated.