The Albemarle County School Board will decide later this month whether to suspend its face mask requirement for school employees as it eases other requirements for students and staff.
Currently, all staff members and visitors are required to wear a mask while inside school buildings while the mandate for students ended earlier this month. With COVID-19 cases declining, school division officials asked board members last week for guidance on staff requirements.
“We want to begin to transition to an endemic state with more sustainable infection control practices than what we currently have,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, the division’s chief operating officer.
As the omicron surge has receded, Albemarle County is seeing fewer new cases among students and staff members. In the last week, there were 16 new cases reported, the fewest since before the school year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Albemarle County and Charlottesville are considered at the medium COVID-19 level, which is based on new cases and strain on hospitals.
At the medium level, people who are high risk for COVID-19 are encouraged to talk to their doctor about masking.
“We’ve been at a very steep decline since mid-January, and we don’t foresee anything changing in that sense, both in terms of Albemarle County but overall with the health district,” said Ryan McKay, COVID-19 incident commander for the Blue Ridge Health District.
Among changes coming to the practices are are shorter quarantine times for students and staff exposed to COVID-19, which would drop from 10 days to five. In April, the division also will stop contact tracing for individual cases.
Board members are torn on the mask requirement for staff members with many supporting it while others support ending weekly testing for unvaccinated employees.
Albemarle County board member Jonno Alcaro said Thursday he was in favor of suspending the requirement given the drop in case numbers. Board member Ellen Osborne said they should wait more than one week at the low level before changing the requirement.
Board member Judy Le said she was learning toward the arguments made about keeping immunocompromised students and those ineligible for the vaccine safe.
“I feel like it’s just one other uncharted territory that we’ve been in for the past two years,” she said. “I feel like we’ve been in this position before where we all had hope.”
She said she is wary of future COVID variants, named after letters in the Greek alphabet, impacting the community.
“I am just very concerned about the child of omicron or son of some other Greek letter coming at us. I want to make sure that that doesn’t catch us flat footed,” she said.
In Charlottesville, the city schools are keeping the testing program for students and mask requirement for employees.
“I know everybody is excited to think that we might get to that point [of not needing masks],” Charlottesville board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said. “I want to remind people that people have family members who are compromised or younger than 5 and aren’t eligible for vaccinations. There are a lot of considerations to this.”
Board members also said they wanted to hear from the division’s School Health Advisory Board before making a decision. That board met Wednesday evening to discuss the changes to the division’s COVID safety plan but did not come to a consensus on a recommendation other than to tie decisions to community levels, Schmitt said.
On Monday, March 14, the changes to quarantine and isolation times will go into effect, according to a presentation at last Thursday’s meeting. Students and staff members exposed to COVID-19 will only have to quarantine for five days if they test negative and asymptotic. Previously, they had to quarantine for 10 days.
Staff members who test positive for COVID-19 can come back after five days if they test negative and can consistently wear a mask and social distance for days six through 10. Students who test positive will still have to stay home for 10 days.
The school system isn’t letting students come back after five days because the division can’t require students to wear a mask when they return early from isolation. Wearing a mask for days six through 10 is part of state and federal guidance.
Effective April 1, the division will not trace contacts in individual cases that occur within schools. They will, however, trace the close contacts if there’s an outbreak or sustained transmission within the schools.
The change follows the health district’s February move to stop contact tracing for individual cases and shift focus to follow-up of outbreaks and cases in high risk settings.
The school division is delaying the suspension of contact tracing until April 1 in order to monitor how the removal of the mask requirement for students affects transmission of the virus in schools.
The division also is planning to change the requirements for a negative test or a doctor’s note if a student is displaying any symptom of COVID-19. That’s due to allergy season and availability of at-home testing.
Social distancing, assigned seats on school buses and the division’s COVID-19 dashboard will continue for the rest of the school year. The division also will continue to encourage eating outdoors when possible and frequent handwashing.