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'Our employees are scared for their lives' | Chesapeake teachers union voices concern as students move back to classrooms

Several Hampton Roads school divisions decided to keep students virtual for now. But in Chesapeake, Option 1 students return to the classroom on Jan 19.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — COVID-19 case numbers keep climbing in Chesapeake. The city hit 510 new cases on Monday, just a day before some Chesapeake Public School students will return to the classroom.

 All students switched to remote learning for two weeks after the holiday break to prevent a surge in cases. Several Hampton Roads school divisions are keeping students virtual, for now. But in Chesapeake, Option 1 students will return to the classroom on Tuesday.

Chesapeake school officials said they are welcoming back roughly 25,000 teachers and staff.

“Our members and our employees are scared for their lives,” said Chesapeake Education Association President Reagan Davis.

Davis will teach eighth-grade math in-person this week, despite rising COVID cases in the city.

“We are the only school system going back and we have a record number of cases in our area,” Davis said.

He also represents 1,100 teachers and staff in the Chesapeake Education Association. Davis believes it will be safer to go back after all willing staff get vaccinated.

“The first day I am able to get my vaccine, I will definitely be getting the first dose of my vaccine,” Davis said.

The city’s health department started the process last week. Group A was the first to go, which included: all therapists, health service employees, bus drivers and assistants, school nutrition, all elementary school employees, special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and substitutes serving in these roles.

All middle and high school employees can get vaccinated on January 27 and 29. All Central office employees and non-school based staff can get vaccinated on February 18 and 19.

Fourth-grade teacher Katelyn Ritenhour only received her first dose and isn’t fully protected against the virus, yet. She’ll start teaching in-person classes five days a week on Tuesday.

“I was in and out,” Ritenhour said, who is also the secretary for the CEA.

“I am happy to see my students of course, but I am concerned because we have just broken records for case positivity and number of cases a day,” Ritenhour said. “I am wondering what we are all bringing back to the school building.”

The division starts vaccinations for the next round of staff on January 27. In the meantime, Ritenhour and Davis plan to raise concerns over rising cases at the next school board meeting on January 25.

“We are completely unapologetic for the work that we do, and our members need the support that we are trying to provide them,” Davis said. “We are hoping that our school division responds in-kind to keeping us all safe.”

Chesapeake City Public School officials said they believe the virus isn’t spreading between students. They said their quarantine methods and CDC health mitigations are working.

If parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children back to school just yet, officials said they can stay virtual.