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Area school districts in flux amid rising COVID case numbers

Lower-grade level elementary students in Albemarle County returned to classrooms Monday as COVID-19 case numbers are close to a division-set threshold for reverting back to all-virtual classes.

Monday’s classes were the first in four weeks; the division moved to all-virtual classes for the weeks before and after the two-week winter break as a precaution. Employees expressed concern on social media about going back to school buildings amid a surge in cases.

The division announced Thursday that it would resume in-person classes Monday. If the county’s positivity rate continues to stay above 8%, classes will revert to all-online next week.

“This recent increase in virus transmission in our community was not unexpected following the holiday season …,” officials wrote in an email to families last week. “As always, we will be monitoring the data carefully and remaining in contact with our local health department.”

Among those working or learning in-person, 24 students, 41 staff members and four contractors have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the division’s dashboard.

Albemarle County is one of several area divisions that is continuing with in-person classes this month, though others have switched to all-virtual or delayed the start of in-person classes. Case numbers and positivity rates vary across the localities, and some with higher rates have continued with in-person learning.

Officials in divisions offering in-person learning have cited confidence in mitigation measures, contact tracing and quarantine efforts, as well as the support of the Blue Ridge Health District, in their decisions.

“We’ve done well on that front,” Albemarle schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said of the mitigation measures, which include wearing a mask and social distancing. “There’s very little evidence of virus transmission in the schools, which tells us that the mitigation strategies are working.”

On Monday, the Blue Ridge Health District reported 126 new cases, bringing January’s total to 1,385. Only 11 days in, that’s already the second-highest total of new cases reported in a single month since the pandemic began in March. December had the most, with 2,218 new cases.

Currently, 63 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized at the University of Virginia Medical Center, which has seen an uptick in virus-related hospitalizations. Because of that increase, UVa officials said last week that they were diverting patients to other hospitals to free up staff to treat pandemic patients.

Giaramita said the Albemarle division talks with health district staff regularly and tracks COVID numbers every day.

“Certainly, we are concerned — there’s no question about it,” he said. “Whether they’re above or below those thresholds, the numbers have been going in the wrong direction, and we’re going to carefully look at that.”

Around the regionSchool divisions in the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Buckingham, Madison, Orange and Nelson are all-virtual right now. Madison and Orange made that switch last week and will remain online-only for about two weeks.

“Our school division is informing parents and guardians that numerous members of our school community are currently in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19 exposure or awaiting test results,” Madison schools Superintendent Anna Graham wrote in a letter to families Friday. “COVID-19 cases are increasing within our community and region, which creates an increased burden on hospitals in our area.”

Similarly, in Orange, the recent surge of cases in the community and the burden on the health care system were behind the division’s decision to move to all-online, starting Jan. 6, according to the Orange County Review.

Madison and Orange counties are part of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District.

Monday night, Louisa County Public Schools announced it would go remote-only, starting Thursday and going through Jan. 29, because of a large number of staff members who are quarantined due to potential COVID-19 exposure from outside the schools.

“We have to be at a place where we have enough staff to adequately uphold our health and safety standards,” the division said in a video to families. “For today and tomorrow, we were able to come up with a short-term coverage plan, but it’s not a sustainable, long-term plan.”

This staffing situation was one of three scenarios schools Superintendent Doug Straley said would trigger a switch to all-virtual classes.

Last week, Andrew Woolfolk, spokesman for Louisa schools, said that since winter break, the division had seen an increase in the number of staff members who have had to quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, and that it was something they were keeping a close eye on.

Charlottesville public schools are still online-only, and the School Board recently delayed the start of in-person classes until at least March 8 because of the surge in cases.

Similarly, the Nelson County school division has remained all-online so far this school year, but the School Board has set Feb. 1 as a target date for bringing children back into buildings and will review the metrics Thursday, according to a Dec. 11 announcement.

The Buckingham County School Board will decide Wednesday whether students should continue with virtual learning, schools Superintendent Daisy Hicks said. Buckingham County is part of the Piedmont Health District.

The Greene school division has offered a version of hybrid in-person learning since starting in September and isn’t anticipating changes to those plans.

“The BRHD has continued to express confidence in the efforts of Greene County Public Schools,” Superintendent Andrea Whitmarsh said. “With the mitigation strategies in place and vigilance of our staff, we have not seen transmission of the virus within our schools.”

Greene students went back to school Jan. 4. The division’s learning model includes five days a week for elementary students and twice a week for middle- and high-schoolers.

“Any deviations from this model would be decided based upon guidance from the Blue Ridge Health District, monitoring of cases within our schools, and our ability to effectively staff our in-person and virtual learning classes,” Whitmarsh said.

Fluvanna County Public Schools moved to a hybrid learning plan in November, and students returned to buildings after winter break.

“Yes, the rising cases are of concern, but our mitigation strategies are working and we are safely educating children in person and virtually,” Fluvanna schools Superintendent Chuck Winkler said.

Second thresholdVirginia’s school divisions have been using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicators and metrics to evaluate the local case numbers and positivity rate. The metrics are used to gauge COVID transmission risk levels from lowest to highest in the schools.

Two of the CDC’s indicators are case incidence rate, which is determined by the total 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.

Localities throughout Central Virginia have case incidence rates in the highest risk category following the surge that started around Thanksgiving, and positivity rates vary from moderate to highest risk.

In November, Albemarle officials said if the case incidence rate was greater than 200 and the positivity rate was more than 8% for seven consecutive days, then classes would move to all-online.

“And the purpose of that is to account for temporary spikes that may not be sustaining,” Giaramita said of the seven-day requirement.

Currently, students in pre-K through third grade have in-person classes twice a week, while other groups of students, such as English language learners and those who haven’t been engaging with learning virtually, are receiving in-person assistance at school.

If the county crosses its thresholds, the division has said it will notify School Board members, employees and families immediately, and the transition would occur at the beginning of the following week.

On Monday, the case incidence rate was 560.2, which is in the highest risk category. That figure has been above 200 since Dec. 5. The positivity rate was 8.6%, as of Jan. 7, and has exceeded 8% for two days, putting that rate in the higher risk category. That metric lags by four days, so positivity rates reported from Jan. 8-11 on the state’s CDC dashboard are placeholders.

Giaramita said the data lag makes the metric confusing. Because division officials only have positivity rates for Jan. 6 and 7, they would need five more days of numbers above 8% before switching to all-virtual, he said.

“Reverting to all-virtual is a possibility,” Giarmata said Monday, adding that he expects the division to say something more on the topic by mid-week.

On Thursday, Albemarle schools Superintendent Matt Haas will recommend to the School Board whether to open up in-person classes to more students for the third quarter, which begins Feb. 1.

Albemarle is one of a few school districts in the area that have set such thresholds. Last month, Straley with Louisa County, outlined in a video message the three scenarios that would lead to online-only classes, none of which is based on case numbers.

Instead, Straley said that decision would be based on whether there’s an unsafe situation in a building; if a significant number of staff members have to isolate or quarantine and they don’t have enough substitutes to cover the vacancies; or if Gov. Ralph Northam or the CDC announce guidelines that wouldn’t enable the division to offer in-person instruction.


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