RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The coronavirus pandemic has brought issues of inequality to the forefront, not only in conversations about how the virus impacts those of different backgrounds, but also in conversations about adapting education during a health crisis.

While many students have returned to school for in-person instruction since the onset of the pandemic, others have chosen to remain engaged in virtual learning. But why are families and students making these decisions?

In the Goochland County Public Schools and Powhatan County Public Schools systems, 100% of the schools receiving Title I funding have a higher percentage of students who have returned to school for in-person instruction.

Title I funding provides financial assistance through state educational agencies to school divisions and public schools with high numbers or percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all students meet academic achievement standards. According to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), schools enrolling at least 40% of students from low-income families, or schools that have received a schoolwide eligibility waiver, are eligible to use Title I funds for schoolwide programs that are designed to upgrade educational programs for all students, particularly the lowest-achieving students.

With this in mind, Title I funding is a benchmark to determine the family income and resources of students in a school district.

The concern is that families with students in Title I schools may be sending their children back for in-person learning not because it’s their choice, but instead, because it’s their only feasible one.

In November 2020, VDOE surveyed school divisions throughout the commonwealth on the barriers they face with remote learning. Although the greatest challenge reported was students’ failing grades, the second most prominent issue was student access to reliable internet.

In fact, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2015 through 2019, 90.8% of the households in Goochland County have a computer, and 83.2% of households in the county have a broadband internet subscription. In Powhatan County, 94.4% of households have a computer, and 89.5% of households have a broadband internet subscription.

Comparatively, U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015 to 2019 shows that 92% of the households in Henrico County have a computer, and 86.2% of the households there have a broadband internet subscription. In Chesterfield County, 94.6% of households have a computer, and 90.1% of households have broadband internet subscription.

Although the VDOE survey expressed Virginia residents’ concern about technology access, this does not appear to be a major determining factor in whether families will send their children back to school for in-person learning, or rely on remote instruction. The U.S. Census Bureau data on computer and internet access in Chesterfield, Goochland, Henrico, and Powhatan Counties is similar across the board.

While all of the combined four Title I schools in Goochland and Powhatan Counties have more students learning in person, data shows just the opposite is happened in the Henrico County Public School system. In Henrico, 85.7% of schools receiving Title I funding have more students involved in virtual learning than those coming into the classroom for face-to-face instruction. Only three Henrico County schools that receive Title I funding have more students engaged in in-person instruction than remote learning: Holladay Elementary, Ridge Elementary, and Sandston Elementary.

Harvie Elementary School is one of 21 schools within Henrico County that receives Title I funding. The majority of students there have elected to engage in learning remotely, while only 25% of students at Harvie are receiving some form of in-person instruction.

“It takes a lot of training on our part, and our district has done an amazing job at making sure that we have so many things at our fingertips, that we have the resources, that we have the different places set up for our families to be able to go, should they have any questions or concerns,” Harvie Elementary School Principal Tonya Holmes said. “We have our innovative learning coaches right here on hand, should our teachers need support, or some students that need support.”

Harvie Elementary School is one of 21 schools within the Henrico County Public Schools system that receives Title I funding. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

Holmes said that keeping students engaged goes beyond curriculum standards.

“Everything’s being done virtually, but it’s so interactive, so hands-on, that they’re going to get the experience,” Holmes said. “We made sure that our students had the Chromebooks and the iPads to ensure that they were not missing anything.”

The school has also kept up with its extracurricular programming, holding a Bingo Night, yoga and meditation sessions, and karaoke, all virtually.

“They still felt as though they were getting the experience of our school family,” Holmes said.

In Henrico County, the median household income from 2015 to 2019 was $70,307. That’s the lowest median household income among the four Counties being compared: Chesterfield with $82,599; Goochland with $93,994; Powhatan with $89,090; and then Henrico.

Though Holmes said that many students have family members who can stay at home with them to guide them through the process of virtual learning, some do not.

“Being a working parent, I understand that. I empathize with that,” she said. “But also, we have [an option] in the division where they offer childcare at a lower cost for our parents.”

Holmes said that families have had mixed responses to the changes being made to learning options as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. While some parents are feeling anxious and are eager for their children to return to school for face-to-face interaction, others are hoping the remote learning experiences will continue.

“We still have about 400 families that are still opting for virtual learning, which, by all means, that’s the majority of our school population, and in thinking about why that is, it is definitely because of what we’re offering them,” Holmes said. “They feel as though they can still make the decision, look at their comfort level, knowing that we’re still providing quality instruction for their students, as well as that we’re just keeping them engaged.”

Holmes said that principals throughout Henrico County have held meetings over the course of the pandemic to discuss the challenges their respective schools face. Regardless of Title I status, the goal remains the same.

“It really doesn’t matter if you’re Title I or not. You have those that are struggling, you have those that are flourishing,” Holmes said. “We’re going to do what’s best for them [students] because we want our children, we want our school, we want our community to continue to thrive.”

At the end of every academic year, Holmes said teachers and staff always wish they had more time with students to prepare them for the next grade level. Though educators would love to have all the students back in the building, they also recognize that safety is paramount.

“Our teachers have done the best they can possibly do to make sure that they’re trying to keep our boys and girls on pace, making sure that they’re still giving our boys and girls their full attention with all the instruction,” Holmes said. “We want more time, and I think this has been a year of learning.”

Henrico County’s school system is significantly larger than that of both Goochland and Powhatan, comparable only to that of Chesterfield County. While Henrico is home to 21 Title I schools, Goochland has one in the system and Powhatan has three in its system. Chesterfield has 18 Title I schools in the County.

The Chesterfield County Public Schools system recently collected information from parents deciding whether their middle and high school students will return for in-person instruction on March 9.

But the majority of student in Chesterfield elementary schools are engaged in face-to-face learning. In the County’s Title I schools, more students are taking part in virtual learning. In fact, 66.7% of Chesterfield elementary schools receiving Title I funding have more students learning remotely than in-person.

Out of the four counties being compared, Chesterfield has the highest percentage of households with computer access and a broadband internet subscription.

Students in Hanover County Public Schools and Amelia County Public Schools are engaged in fully in-person learning, while the Spotsylvania County Public Schools system has taken a hybrid approach. The Richmond Public Schools system has gone fully virtual for the time being, as has the Dinwddie County Public Schools system.