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'Most important school year ever' | Virginia Beach Superintendent talks back-to-school, masks

Forty percent of Virginia Beach students will return to class next week for the first time in 18 months.

Tens of thousands of students in Virginia Beach are returning to the classroom on Sept. 9 for the first time since the pandemic began.

This unprecedented set of circumstances sets the stage for the most important school year of our generation, according to the superintendent who sat down exclusively with 13News Now ahead of the new year.

"We absolutely know kids do better when they're with us. All of our work, all of goals, all of our intention has been to have them with us five days a week this next school year, and worst-case scenario would be that not happening."

Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent Doctor Aaron Spence said now is the time to get every student back into school.

To avoid a worst-case scenario of sending kids home or shutting down schools, Dr. Spence said the district will follow state and federal laws plus health department and CDC guidance to make in-person learning as safe as possible.

READ MORE: Virginia Beach's 'Returning to School Safely' Plan

That means masks for everyone while indoors and on school buses, three feet of social distancing when possible, plus plans for contact tracing and quarantining if needed.

"Masks work, masks are important, and that's why in Virginia Beach, everyone is going to be wearing one," he said.

Dr. Spence said they will monitor what's happening in schools daily when it comes to the transmission of the virus. He noted every school had success last year in limiting the virus’ spread inside schools.

“We saw cases in our schools last year, we anticipate we’ll see cases in our schools this year, the difference is whether or not that means transmission,” he said. "What we see in our schools, is if we're following our mitigation, we did not see that transmission happening, so we did not see people giving it to each other in school. We saw positive cases coming in from the community."

New this school year is the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, impacting kids more than before. But there’s also now the Pfizer vaccine approved for children 12-17.

In Virginia Beach, 43% of 12 to 17-year-olds have gotten both shots. That's the highest rate amongst eligible kids in Hampton Roads. But it's still lower than the rest of Virginia, where 50% of 12 to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to data as of Sept. 1 from the Virginia Department of Health.

RELATED: Masks to be required in Virginia Beach public schools

Dr. Spence and the School Board can't legally require students to get the shot. But teachers and staff could be a different story when it comes to mandating the vaccine.

"I'm sure we'll need to have that conversation; we're seeing some other school districts start to have that conversation," Dr. Spence said. "Really what this comes down to, to be totally clear, is we need to look at the data, the data could drive those decisions. If we do begin to see that we have to close classrooms and quarantine a lot of folks, and we see through the data that it is unvaccinated individuals that we're having to quarantine and it's creating a staff shortage or we're closing classrooms, I think that will drive us to a decision about whether mandatory vaccines are going to be necessary."

Dr. Spence said both CDC guidance and local data will drive decisions from here on out as everyone prepares for a critical year back in school.

"I think it's going to set the stage for recovery, and if we get it right, we're going to put our kids back on a terrific trajectory for success, and if we don't get it right, we're going to be years working to recover from this,” Dr. Spence said.

Dr. Spence estimates 40% of Virginia Beach students will return to class next week for the first time in 18 months.

Author's Note: The above video is on file from Aug. 11, 2021.

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