Virginia’s Education Department will allow elementary- and middle-schoolers to take local exams rather than state-mandated Standards of Learning tests this academic year, in a bid to make it easier for educators to cope with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Students will be able to take substitute assessments in history, social science and English, the department announced Thursday, per new waivers and emergency guidance approved this week by Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane, Education Secretary Atif Qarni and Virginia’s Board of Education. State officials are also giving school systems more flexibility to award graduation credits.

The adjustments, which took formal effect following Qarni’s sign-off, are overall meant to “reduce the need for in-person testing,” according to an Education Department news release.

“These waivers provide relief and agility to students and educators who are managing a lot of personal and professional pressure during this tumultuous time,” Qarni said in a statement. “Innovation is necessary to keep Virginia students learning safely this academic year.”

The news comes as cases continue to grow both nationally and in the Washington region. Virginia, Maryland and D.C. cumulatively recorded 5,027 new daily infections Friday, pushing the rolling seven-day average of daily cases to 4,361 — a record, for the 17th day in a row.

In response, D.C.-area school systems have started shutting down again. In Northern Virginia, most schools have been online-only for the vast majority of children since March. As cases held steady in the early fall, school officials had brought back small numbers of vulnerable students and begun discussing how to return larger cohorts, but these plans are largely now on hold.

Normally, students in Virginia must take a slate of state-approved tests — known as SOLs — at the end of each year in English, math, science, history and social science that “establish minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do,” according to the state’s Education Department website. Last spring, officials canceled these tests entirely in response to the pandemic, marking the first time students did not have to sit through the exams since 1998.

Virginia was allowed to nix the tests in 2019-2020 because the federal government agreed to give school systems nationwide a reprieve from testing. But the U.S. Education Department is being less lenient this time around, according to Lane, the superintendent.

The federal government is not likely to waive testing in reading and mathematics for third- through eighth-graders, Lane told the Virginia Board of Education at a meeting Thursday. Nor is it going to permit cancellation of federally mandated high school reading and math exams, or science testing for elementary, middle and high school students, Lane said.

So Virginia is exercising the only flexibility it has, by replacing the non-federally required Virginia Studies, Civics and Economics and Grade-8 Writing SOLs with “local assessments,” as long as they “follow emergency guidance approved by the Board of Education and report student performance data to the state,” according to the news release.

If some school systems want children to take the SOLs anyway, they may do so.

Lane is also drawing on emergency authority granted him by the 2020 General Assembly to waive a requirement that high-schoolers must pass an end-of-year history SOL before they can earn a “locally awarded verified credit” toward graduation. Instead, high-schoolers may earn that credit through a school-provided test.

Furthermore, under the new guidance, schools can award graduation credit for any course taken in fall 2020 so long as the student satisfies “local criteria” and scores sufficiently high on testing.

“The waivers and emergency guidance will simplify the logistics of SOL testing this year and ensure that COVID-19 pandemic does not unduly prevent any student from earning a diploma,” Lane said in a statement.