Virginia schools will enter the third phase of the state's reopening plan next week, allowing for the possibility of in-person instruction for all students when schools reopen in the fall.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that Virginia will enter Phase Three on July 1, a move that allows for social gatherings of up to 250 people and removes the cap on the number of patrons at restaurants and retail businesses. With the state moving forward with reopening, schools will follow suit.

While classrooms will look far different than before they closed for the rest of the academic year March 16, guidance released earlier this month says in that third phase, in-person teaching can be offered for all students.

"The Virginia guidance document aligns with (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance for reopening and provides considerations for school divisions in the first three phases of reopening, and we are all going into Phase Three next week throughout the commonwealth," said Clark Mercer, Northam's chief of staff, on Thursday.

Education leaders and families across Virginia eagerly awaited the state's guidance, which it unveiled June 9. Those guidelines allow for all students to return to school, but they must practice social distancing. That means potentially not mixing classes and limiting recess; closing or staggering the use of communal spaces like cafeterias; and limiting the number of people on buses, among other things.

The 136-page guidance from the Virginia Department of Education was seen by many education officials and parents as required, with local school districts having to submit reopening plans to the agency in order to advance in the phases. Parents also organized, forming a group called "Choices for Virginia Schools," to voice their frustration with the state's guidelines.

Mercer said the guidance "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 added: "The final decisions about reopening are squarely in the hands of local school boards."

Republicans have criticized the lack of clarity on who was ultimately deciding when and how schools could reopen. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, reiterated that sentiment Thursday.

"Any parent of a school-aged child in Virginia who saw today's briefing by Governor Northam is probably livid right now, and they have every right to be," Gilbert said in a statement.

He added: "Decorum prevents me from saying what I really think, but I will say this: If you need an example of incompetence and untruthfulness in one package, look no further than Governor Ralph Northam."

School systems in the Richmond area are still weighing how to reopen, including the possibility of a hybrid situation in which students go to school several days a week and learn virtually on other days.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306​

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