As local students head back to the classroom next week, the school day still won’t be back to normal as divisions implement measures to keep students and staff members as safe as possible from the novel coronavirus and its variants.
“This one’s going to be different,” said Beth Baptist, acting director of human resources and students services for Charlottesville City Schools. “We didn’t know it was going to be this different, but we’re working hard to be ready for it.”
Albemarle students begin in-person classes Monday and Charlottesville students go back Wednesday. They’ll be in class five days a week, the first time that will occur since March 2020.
The week will kick off the third school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first year ended early and the second one saw several disruptions as students returned to buildings for part of the week in various phases.
Schools are required to offer in-person instruction five days a week under a state law that allowed boards to side-step the often difficult decisions that marked last summer and the subsequent school year about whether and how to reopen buildings.
As school staff members prepare to welcome back students, they are building off more than a year of work to upgrade ventilation systems in buildings, craft protocols for cleaning and at-home symptom checks and changing classroom setups to allow for more space between desks.
Similar to last year, all students and adults will still be wearing masks while indoors, and desks will be spaced three feet apart, half the distance used during in-person classes last year. Water fountains will remain turned off. All of the safety measures in place for the coming school year are based on local, state and federal guidance.
Last school year, both the city and Albemarle school districts upgraded filters in HVAC units, changed settings to bring in more outdoor air and purchased air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air filters.
In a big change from last year, adults and children 12 and over can be vaccinated, which experts say is the best way to protect people from COVID and end the pandemic. Both school divisions are requiring employees to be vaccinated; no such mandate is in the works for students for older students.
To help more people get vaccinated, the school divisions are planning to host vaccine clinics similar to last year.
In Albemarle County and Charlottesville combined, 69.9% of children ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, and 74.1% of those ages 16 and 17 are.
Until more students are eligible for the vaccine, the school systems are looking to a range of safety measures to protect those in the buildings.
That means reminders for children and adults to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer will still be commonplace. Custodial crews also will still wipe down high-touch areas.
In Albemarle County, lunch is returning to the cafeteria, and newly installed outdoor tents will provide opportunities for getting outside. Charlottesville will keep serving meals in the classroom, as it did last spring.
Both divisions have ditched the daily temperature checks for students, staff and visitors, and the capacity of school buses will be slightly higher than last year. But, the daily at-home screenings for symptoms, contact tracing and quarantines, if needed, will remain.
During open houses and other back-to-school activities, schools are sharing details about the COVID-related rules along with more typical new-year information. Charlottesville City Schools also will host a Zoom webinar from 4 to 5 p.m. Sunday to discuss the COVID safety measures. For information, go to charlottesvilleschools.org/covid-safety-conversations. Albemarle’s online session about the mitigation strategies was held Wednesday and is available at k12albemarle.org/our-division/covid-19-response.
The first day arrives as cases across the region, state and country have been rising, fueled by a much more contagious variant of the virus known as delta. So far this month, the Blue Ridge Health District has reported 786 new cases — 14.5% of which have been among children 9 or younger, who are not currently eligible for the COVID vaccine.
The 114 cases thus far in August is one of the highest figures of any month of the pandemic among that age group. During the peak of the winter surge, there were 130 new cases in February among that age group, which made up 4% of the new cases that month.
This time last year, children 9 and under accounted for 3.9% of the 770 new cases reported in August 2020.
Although overall cases have not risen to the levels seen during the winter surge that sent schools back all-online, they are increasing following a few months in which numbers receded and seemed to suggest the pandemic was waning, thanks to higher vaccination rates. The delta variant quickly changed the game.
The number of children in the Blue Ridge Health District needing hospital care because of COVID-19 has increased slightly this month, from 10 to 13, with the three additional cases being 10% of the 30 new hospitalizations this month and less than 2% of the overall hospitalizations in the district since the pandemic began.
Dr. Norm Oliver, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health, said in an interview Friday that the delta surge is expected to last for another few weeks.
“But if we get more people vaccinated, and we all wear masks in indoor public settings, I think we can decrease the height of that surge and get on the other side of that curve when it’s decreasing,” he said.
In the 2020-21 academic year, schools didn’t experience mass outbreaks despite students and staff members testing positive, which officials point to as evidence that the mitigation measures such as mask requirements work to reduce the virus’ spread in buildings.
School officials have said throughout the summer that the goal is to have children back in the buildings, and that remains the case with the first day approaching.
“We need to get back to in-person learning because many of our kids are not where they need to be,” Charlottesville’s acting superintendent, Jim Henderson, said at the city School Board’s Aug. 5 meeting. “We need to make sure that we find ways to accelerate learning and help our kids get back on a path that’s going to help them become great learners.”
Students still have a virtual option if they aren’t comfortable returning in-person. Albemarle County opted to create a standalone virtual school for elementary, middle and high students. As of Thursday, about 411 students were signed up for the virtual school.
Phil Giaramita, spokesman for the county schools, said that number has increased by about 100 students over the past few weeks.
“This corresponds with the national and local publicity on the delta variant, which certainly suggests there may be a link,” he said.
Those who want to switch from in-person to virtual should talk to their school principal, officials have said.
Charlottesville students had to apply for the virtual option, which was open to students in third through eighth grades. The city received 53 applications by Aug. 5, 30 of which were approved, according to division data. Other families chose to withdraw their applications, and 14 were denied. The decision to approve or deny a request was based on how a student did last school year during virtual learning. Applications for the virtual option remain open.
After two years of experimenting with virtual learning, the school systems will adopt a more traditional approach if students have to stay home because of quarantine rules. Teachers will send assignments home, and students will have access to the class resources online. The work will be similar to last year’s asynchronous learning days. Officials say it would be too disruptive to move a student to the virtual option and switch their teacher during quarantine periods.
“We would treat that as if a student got the flu in the past,” Patrick McLaughlin, chief of strategic planning for the county schools, said at this week’s webinar about mitigation measures. “We feel the best way for them to stay on top of things is through direct communication with their classroom teacher and to have that work sent home to them from that person.”
The exception would be if a whole class has to quarantine. In that case, they would all switch to an online class.
In Albemarle, if all the mitigation strategies are in place, such as physical distancing and masks, the division won’t place any additional restrictions on assemblies or large gatherings or community use, McLaughlin said.
In Charlottesville, all-school assemblies and other similar large gatherings will depend on if the spacing requirement of three feet can be met, Baptist said.
“Having students receive instruction is going to be the main thing and whatever we can work around that then we will attempt to do but we just want our kids back in school,” she said.
Both school divisions are requiring that employees be vaccinated or show weekly proof of a negative COVID test. Charlottesville’s mandate kicks in Sept. 1 while Albemarle’s begins Sept. 15, in line with a county local government order.
Vaccination status for Charlottesville employees will determine how sick days will work, if they are needed, Baptist said. A vaccinated employee who has a COVID-related absence, such as if their child needs to quarantine, will have paid leave and won’t have to use their own sick days. An unvaccinated employee who has a COVID-related absence will have to use their own sick days to cover the time off.
Albemarle is planning to offer additional days of paid leave for staff members that could be used for COVID-related absences but the details haven’t been shared with employees yet.
Any decision about whether to close a school will be made in consultation with the Blue Ridge Health District and based on a range of factors, including the number of cases in a school and evidence of transmission within the school, officials with both school districts said.
“It is our intention to be open as much as possible,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, the county schools’ COO. “We will rely heavily on the direction of local health officials, but that’s the primary factor. You will see no mention of stages in any of the conversations for next year, so our intent is that [closures] will be very targeted and temporary.”
The city division is still working on a plan for how the transition to all-virtual classes would occur if a school needs to close.
Baptist said each case in Charlottesville will be looked at individually to weigh different factors, such as the number of close contacts and vaccination status of those involved.
“We wouldn’t make the decision solely to close the class or to close the school,” Baptist said. “We would do it in conjunction with our health partners.”
Who exactly will need to quarantine for 14 days if there’s a positive case in a school will be more complicated than last year, when close contacts were defined as someone within six feet of someone who tested positive for more than 15 minutes during the day.
Now, in response to the need to have students back in school, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has carved out a K-12 exemption, said Aaron Silverman, a public health investigator with the Blue Ridge Health District.
Students within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student are not counted as close contacts if both individuals were wearing masks correctly and consistently for the entire time.
“Especially when both parties involved are wearing them, masks can go a long way to making it much less likely for there to be spread,” Silverman said. “Similarly, ventilation, as many of the area schools will have been working to improve, will also help mitigate spread inside of the classroom setting. And we do rely a great deal on teachers to monitor mask use and to encourage students to continue to wear their masks properly.”
As with last school year, the health district will work with school nurses and other school staff to determine who would be considered close contacts and to notify those individuals. The exemption doesn’t apply to adults in an indoor classroom setting, but fully vaccinated people will not have to quarantine.