Following two weeks of remote learning, some Albemarle students will head back to class on Monday as the division looks to restart Stage Three, schools Superintendent Matt Haas announced Wednesday.
The announcement comes after COVID-19 case numbers have declined in recent days following a record surge. The county’s case incidence rate remains well above the division’s threshold for remote learning, while the 14-day positivity rate has dropped into the lower risk category as set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As part of Stage Three, preschoolers through third-graders have in-person classes twice a week and other groups of students, such as English Language Learners and those who haven’t been engaging with virtual learning, could come into the schools for help with online classes.
“We also this week received guidance from the state department of education which called upon school divisions to closely coordinate with their health department, establish a culture of support for mitigation strategies and to carefully consider all the educational, social and economic impacts on families when deciding whether students could return to school,” Haas wrote in a message to families.
As of Wednesday, January has been the worst month of the pandemic so far with 2,841 new cases reported in the Blue Ridge Health District. Additionally, there have been 66 more hospitalizations this month and 16 more deaths.
Schools also use the CDC indicators to evaluate the COVID-19 case data. Two of the CDC’s indicators are case incidence rate, which is determined by the total number of new cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days, and the percent positivity rate, which is an average of positive cases over the same time period.
On Wednesday, the county’s incidence rate was 398.1 and the positivity rate 4.6%.
The division has said it is operationally ready to move to Stage Four, which would allow for in-person classes for all students, though how frequently different groups would attend in person varies. Officials said at a School Board meeting earlier this month that the recommendation to move to Stage Four will be made when health metrics allow, though no specific metrics were mentioned.
Since the school year started Sept. 8, 31 students, 52 staff members and five contractors have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the division’s dashboard that tracks cases among those learning or working in-person.
Haas said in the message to families that the division’s efforts to follow COVID-19 precautions support the conclusions of a trio of CDC researchers who said in an opinion piece published Tuesday there was little evidence that schools have led to increased community transmission.
Those researchers said that preventing the virus’ spread in schools requires reducing community spread as well as strict adherence to a range of mitigation measures. Those measures include universal face mask use, social distancing in the classroom, using hybrid attendance models, increasing ventilation and expanding the use of testing to identify asymptomatic cases.
The researchers also suggested limited school activities such as indoor sports or practices, which could increase the risk of transmission.
Earlier this month, the Albemarle County School Board voted to allow high school winter athletics and other extracurriculars to continue even when classes were all-online. Other school divisions in the area are also competing and mask policies vary from school to school.
A recent CDC report also found lower spread in schools compared to the community. That study reviewed data from 17 rural Wisconsin schools with 4,876 students and 654 staff members combined. Those schools, which had strict mask policies, had 191 COVID-19 cases among staff and students during the fall and seven results from in-school transmission.
“However, this study was unable to rule out asymptomatic transmission within the school setting because surveillance testing was not conducted,” according to the CDC study.