The Albemarle County School Board will decide in two weeks what to do about in-person classes for the second quarter — a decision that as of now will be made based on a set of factors but no clear metrics.
Meanwhile, a resolution proposed by the Albemarle Education Association outlined several suggested metrics, including the percent positivity and case incidence rates, for each reopening stage. The county school system is following a five-stage reopening plan that phases in groups of students for in-person classes. The division started the first quarter in Stage Two.
Josh Mound, a teacher at Center I and member of the AEA, said teachers think it’s important to remove politics from reopening decisions and focus on science and safety, hence the resolution.
“Movement between stages shouldn’t be a fraught, uncertain issue every quarter,” he said. “If we focus on clear benchmarks, then families and teachers can know if we’re on track to move stages in the next quarter or not. The benchmarks also let the public, county officials, University of Virginia and other community leaders know what we need to do as a community to fight COVID’s spread and open schools safely.”
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas will recommend a stage for the second quarter at the School Board’s next meeting, on Oct. 8, and then the board members will vote. In advance of that decision, the School Board discussed the current COVID-19 case numbers during its meeting Thursday.
Thursday’s COVID-19 presentation did include color-coded numbers for the case incidence and positivity rates but neither the Virginia Department of Health nor the school system has explained how those colors are determined.
Case incidence rates in Albemarle have fluctuated and the rolling seven-day average has stayed under 10 while Charlottesville’s case numbers continue to climb when looking at the rates per 100,000 residents. In the last month, Charlottesville’s seven-day average case incidence rate has increased from 4.8 to 46.9. Albemarle’s average was 8.5.
“We wanted to explain that the metrics we received from the Virginia Department of Health are intended to provide a starting point for conversations and decision making,” said Eileen Gomez, the division’s COVID-19 coordinator. “We do not have absolute benchmarks for which people are clamoring.”
Ryan McKay, senior policy analyst with the Thomas Jefferson Health District, helped with the presentation and echoed Gomez that the data is a starting for a broader discussion about the what the risk may be.
“So, I think the context behind the data is important,” McKay said.
The district’s positivity rate was at 4.7% on Thursday and has remained under 5% for the last eight days, which McKay said reflected the “massive amounts of testing going on.”
State officials repeatedly have said that any decision about school reopenings is a local one, though VDH does provide divisions with information about risk levels based on the case numbers. Not all of that information is publicly available.
The School Board could lean on indicators and metrics released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which gauge the risk level in schools. However, those indicators were not discussed during Thursday’s meeting.
The School Board also has not discussed what it would like the case numbers and other data points to be before moving to a different reopening stage, despite calls at public comment for the board to do so. For example, if the health department determines there’s a moderate risk of transmission, it’s unclear what that would mean for the schools.
With Albemarle’s current COVID-19 ordinance — which makes masks mandatory in public, limits restaurants to 50% occupancy indoors and restricts certain public and private in-person gatherings to a maximum of 50 people — officials said they wanted to see a benchmark of a positivity rate of 5% or lower for at least 14 days before lifting restrictions, citing the World Health Organization’s recommendation.
The Board of Supervisors on Sept. 16 approved the current restrictions until Nov. 18, but County Attorney Greg Kamptner said county staff would continue to monitor the situation between now and then.
Some speakers during Thursday’s public comment section urged the board to adopt benchmarks or metrics to use in determining which stage to move to and supported the resolution from the AEA.
“But it can’t be just like nine weeks and then it’s going to magically disappear; an arbitrary nine weeks in one phase, then go to the next is not acceptable,” said Erin Wise-Ackenbom, a teacher at Albemarle High School. “You need to use science and data, and look at the experts. … If you don’t like what AEA has laid out … then make your own and make it clean.”
The AEA’s resolution includes thresholds for Stages Three, Four and Five that are based on the district’s positive rate, the case incidence rates per 100,000 residents for Charlottesville and Albemarle, the testing capacity and turnaround times for test results.
For Stage Three, the association wants to see a positivity rate below 3% for the previous 14 days; fewer than five new cases in Albemarle and Charlottesville during the previous 14 days; at least 150 new tests per 100,000 residents per day over the previous 14 days; and providing of COVID-19 testing to students and staff, with results available in less than 48 hours.
“The Albemarle Education Association will actively oppose any change in phases divorced from reasonable data benchmarks and the latest research on COVID-19 safety,” according to the resolution.
Several teachers who spoke during the meeting were opposed to moving to Stage Three, which the division is currently weighing. Those who spoke said virtual learning is going well and that it’s not yet safe to return to school, echoing many of the concerns raised in July when the board initially decided how to start the school year.
“I want nothing more than to go back to the classroom and be with my students, but I only want that when it is safe for everyone,” said Kathryn DeAtley, a kindergarten teacher at Meriwether Lewis Elementary.
In July, 65% of teachers said they didn’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom. Parents were divided on their levels of concern with returning to school, though 67% preferred hybrid learning. About half of the division’s parents responded to the July survey.
Bo Odom, a parent of a first-grader at Greer Elementary, said during public comment that virtual learning was not working for his child.
“It’s enrichment, not learning,” he said. “… These are first-graders. We shouldn’t expect the kind of self-control necessary for online learning.”
In weighing whether to move to Stage Three, the division has listed 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.
In the past two months, the district has ramped up testing as UVa has offered more community testing locations and started testing students more regularly. This month, the district is averaging 625 tests a day, according to an analysis of VDH data.
“We heard often tonight about safety,” McKay said. “That’s really hard to define. It’s better to define the potential risks involved there and what are we doing, not just in relation to positivity rates and the case counts, but what are we doing holistically, as a community, to mitigate and minimize risk.”
Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said McKay’s comments were useful and that he was not aware of any plans to propose a checklist to the board.
“I think the recommendation will take into account a range of factors, including health data, feedback from parents, students and staff via the upcoming online surveys and recommendations from the federal and state public health experts,” he said in an email.
School Board member Katrina Callsen asked McKay whether schools are a place where risk would be low and how they could lower that risk.
“Because it’s hard as a board member without a health background to just see the numbers and feel like we need to make the decision based on the numbers,” she said.
McKay said the reopenings in Louisa and Greene counties show it can be done safely with a host of mitigation strategies in place, from daily health screenings to keeping students in separate groups, as well as quick responses to positive cases.
“While school doesn’t look like school in terms of the numbers and what a classroom looks like, they have been very successful at bringing students back, implementing policies such as face masks, putting markers on the floor, stickers on the floor, as well as reminders of how to do physical and social distancing,” he said. “So, the strategies they put in both levels have been pretty remarkable to see.”
As of Thursday, Louisa County was averaging 4.3 new cases per 100,000 residents while Greene County was at 3.6.