If Albemarle County’s COVID-19 case numbers move into the “higher” or “highest” risk categories, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the school division would return to all-virtual classes.
The division announced the thresholds Tuesday, the last day of classes before the Thanksgiving holiday. Over the last several months, teachers and community members have been requesting clear benchmarks for each stage of the division’s reopening plan.
This week’s announcement to staff and families follows reports of rising COVID-19 cases nationally and fears that gatherings during the Thanksgiving holiday will exacerbate the spread the virus.
In-person classes for lower-grade Albemarle students started earlier this month.
The Charlottesville school division is planning for in-person classes to start in January, but officials have not set thresholds for what would trigger a return to all-virtual classes.
City schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said she’ll bring a matrix of different metrics to the School Board’s Dec. 2 meeting for members to consider.
In Albemarle, the thresholds focus on two of the CDC’s core indicators: the number of new cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days and the percent of positive tests over the last 14 days. The third core indicator is the ability of a school system to implement a range of mitigation measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.
The division will move to Stage One — online-only classes — if the first indicator is above 200 new cases for seven consecutive dates and if the positivity rate is above 8%. If necessary to return to Stage One, the division said it will notify School Board members, employees and families immediately, and the transition would occur at the beginning of the following week.
The Albemarle Education Association, which represents county teachers, criticized the thresholds in a statement Tuesday, saying it would like to see them revised to include numbers in lower risk categories.
A shift to Stage One doesn’t require School Board approval. The division said it will go back to Stage Three when both measures decrease for 14 days and at least one measure is below the threshold.
The CDC considers a rate of more than 200 cases to be in the highest risk category for COVID-19 transmission, according to its list of indicators and metrics that gauge risk levels for schools based on COVID-19 numbers for lowest to highest. The higher and highest risk categories are color-coded in orange and red, specifically. A positivity rate of 8% would fall under the higher risk category.
At the highest risk level, school leaders should limit in-person instruction to only students with disabilities, the Virginia Department of Health has said in its guidance to schools.
As of Tuesday, the county had recorded 146.2 new cases per 100,000 residents, a metric that has steadily ticked up in the last week and is in the CDC’s higher risk category. The positivity rate, however, was 1.4%, which is in the lowest risk category.
The county has never had more than 200 cases per 100,000 since the pandemic started in March, and the positivity rate has been in the lowest risk category — below 3% — since Oct. 17.
Charlottesville’s case rate hasn’t dropped below 200 since Aug. 29, though its positivity rate has remained low.
Positivity rates in the Thomas Jefferson Health District, as well as in Albemarle and Charlottesville specifically, have dropped significantly as the University of Virginia ramped up testing over the last two months. Public health officials have said UVa-affiliated testing has skewed the percent of positive tests reported over a seven-day timeframe.
From Nov. 15 to Nov. 21, 71% of all testing encounters in the health district were either for UVa students, faculty, staff or contract workers, according to a Daily Progress analysis of area testing data.
The health district is not recommending that the school divisions set those testing benchmarks but does support them, spokeswoman Kathryn Goodman said.
She said the data points are subject to the broader community and affected by UVa for Charlottesville and Albemarle. Goodman said additional factors are needed to understand that data such as virus transmission in the schools.
Surrounding counties in the district could rely on the CDC indicators because the university doesn’t influence their data as much, she said.
Rosalyn Schmitt, the Albemarle division’s chief operating officer, said in her announcement about the thresholds that they’ll be in place while UVa students are gone for the holidays, beginning this week. After UVa students return in February for spring classes, division staff will analyze the impact on their return on the thresholds.
“Thresholds must take into account circumstances that could influence our data, but not pose a risk to our schools,” Schmitt said. “For example, a large outbreak at a long-term care facility may result in data exceeding a benchmark, but it would not require the school division to return to Stage One.”
She added that factors such as higher absentee rates of students and staff or evidence of the virus spreading in facilities could result in a return to Stage One even if thresholds have not been reached.
“Thresholds are intended for division-wide decisions,” Schmitt said. “Short-term decisions made by individual schools may occur separately if circumstances warrant and in consultation with the local health department.”
Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said Wednesday that officials pulled from the CDC’s higher risk category, as opposed to highest risk, for the positivity percentage in part because of the possibility of UVA testing strategies influencing the county’s rate. More than 10% of positive tests returned over 14 days would fall in the highest risk category.
In September, the Albemarle Education Association proposed benchmarks for each reopening stage based on information from Harvard’s Global Health Institute, federal guidance and other analysis. Neither division leadership nor the School Board publicly discussed that proposal.
On Tuesday, AEA’s leadership criticized the thresholds and the exclusion of Charlottesville’s data in the schools and said teachers weren’t consulted prior to the public release of the benchmarks.
“While the AEA is pleased that the administration finally has acknowledged that measurable health data should guide reopening, it believes the benchmarks set by ACPS place students, staff and families at risk,” they said in a statement to The Daily Progress that also was sent to the School Board.
They would like to see the thresholds revised to include numbers from the lower risk categories set by the CDC, as well as nixing the requirement for the 14-day case incidence rate to be above 200 for seven consecutive days. That requirement, the AEA said in the statement, would mean that it will take three weeks of sustained widespread COVID transmission for the division to react.
Echoing other officials, the teachers said in the statement that because of UVa’s testing, AEA doesn’t believe the percent positivity is an accurate reflection of the virus’ threat to the greater Albemarle community.
“If the cumulative case number is high, a low percent positivity does not mean that the COVID-19 risk is low,” they said.
Stage Three started Nov. 9, which means that preschoolers through third-graders can attend in-person classes twice a week. About half of the eligible students opted for that hybrid model. More student groups also can come into school buildings for help with online classes.
Among those working or learning in-person, two students, 17 staff members and four contractors had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to the division’s dashboard of cases. However, there’s no evidence of COVID-19 transmission in any of the schools or departments, Schmitt said in her message.
No outbreaks have been reported in K-12 schools throughout the Thomas Jefferson Health District.
Planning efforts for Stage Four, in which all students would have the option of in-person classes, are under way. The School Board will hear a presentation about what all that stage entails Dec. 10, with a decision on whether to move to Stage Four expected in January.
The School Board and division leaders have said the decision to move up a stage will be based on several factors, including state and federal guidance, current COVID-19 conditions in the area, ability to staff the schools and the district’s testing capacity.
Charlottesville City Schools is planning for in-person classes to start in January. Last week, the School Board discussed that plan, as well as potentially setting metrics for going back to all-virtual classes.
However, officials said during that meeting that they didn’t want to tie themselves to one metric and would consider a range of data points in determining whether to stop in-person classes.
Atkins said at the meeting that when the positivity rate and case numbers go into the red, as determined by the CDC, they’ll work with the local health department and the School Board on next steps.
They’ll also look at if there’s an outbreak in the schools and where any virus spread is occurring in buildings.
“That may also cause us to come back and ask the board, ‘let’s go back,’” Atkins said. “So it is situational. We will use the metrics, but we will also use situations to help guide us.”
Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said that in other school divisions, they’ve used contact tracing on positive cases to determine the source of virus transmission and whether the virus was spreading in the schools.
“That seems to drive the decision across the state with whether or not they are advised to revert to virtual learning for a classroom, for school, or for district,” she said.
As of Tuesday, Charlottesville had 259.8 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days, and the positivity rate was 1.1%.
Board members asked about having the COVID-19 advisory committee recommend thresholds for stopping in-person classes.
Board Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said that would be a challenge for a 50-member committee, which discussed the issue at length.
“There are very significant variables,” she said. “Even now, you look at our percent positivity rate, and as soon as we do that, we get an email from somebody who says, ‘well without UVa, this is what our numbers look like.’”
Board member LaShundra Bryson Morsberger and others said they want to see clear thresholds in the division’s plans.
Richard Feero, a parent and Abundant Life Ministries volunteer, asked the board to base its decision on local numbers and to determine the threshold for returning to all-virtual classes.
“Whatever the threshold is, please make it clear and official so that families with students benefiting from in-person school can better plan for a potential transition to virtual instruction if rates rise locally,” Feero said.