Area students head back to school next week following the two-week winter break and amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Albemarle County schools superintendent Matt Haas wrote in a message to families that the division will operate normally Jan. 4, when classes resume, with all of the protective measures that have been in place for the school year so far. That means, students and staff members will be required to wear masks and a 10-day quarantine for those who test positive, among other tactics.
Students and staff members in the Albemarle and Charlottesville school divisions are required to complete a daily health screening for symptoms and encouraged to stay home if they don’t feel well.
Haas said that the school system’s decision is based on guidance for the Blue Ridge Health District. He also pointed to a new state law adopted earlier this year that requires schools to provide in-person instruction.
“If you have any questions or concerns about anyone in your household going back to in-person school, your school administrators will be happy to work with you to determine the most appropriate next steps for you and your family,” Haas wrote. “The health of our students, employees, families and community is our top priority, and we will continue to do everything we can to protect it.”
Since Christmas, the Blue Ridge Health District has reported more than 1,500 new cases, bringing the total for December 2021 to 3,573 — the highest of any month of the pandemic. The seven-day average of new cases is up to 221.2. So far, about 15% of COVID tests over the last seven days have been positive, a higher than usual positivity rate. The spike in cases is likely the result of an increase in testing around the holidays, more holiday-related gatherings along with the more transmissible delta and omicron variants, officials have said.
The post-holiday winter surge in early 2021 pushed several school divisions in Central Virginia back to all-online classes. The health district’s winter surge peaked at 149 new cases over a seven-day period.
The current surge in cases hit as schools began winter break, and districts across the country are readying for the return of students and employees. Washington D.C. Public Schools recently announced that it will require a negative COVID-19 test before students and employees can return to school.
Charlottesville schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. said in a message to families Thursday that in-person classes would resume Jan. 4 as well and acknowledged that the case levels are “troubling.”
“We are committed to following the guidance of health experts for practices such as masking, hand-washing, testing, and more,” he wrote. “One of their recommendations is to keep students in school. If we all do our part, we can do this safely.”
Charlottesville students and staff members can receive a free COVID test next week at school if they sign up by Sunday evening. The division has partnered with the state to provide the free tests, which began in early November. For more information, go to charlottesvilleschools.org/COVID-testing.
Gurley said existing measures such as encouraging vaccination and boosters, limiting gatherings and eating lunch outside when possible remain in place.
“The bottom line is that working closely with the BRHD, we are staying the course to continue our many COVID safety strategies, including our testing programs,” Gurley wrote.
Gurley added that almost all of the positive cases in schools were transmitted outside of school or school programs.
At the recommendation of the Blue Ridge Health District, neither school system is planning a change to the existing protocols for quarantine and isolation despite changing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the time frame for quarantine and isolation from 10 days to five.
BRHD said in an update Thursday that the majority of COVID-19 transmission takes place earlier after infection in the first few days before symptoms appear and about two to three days after. However, individuals who have tested positive can still be contagious up to 10 days after the beginning of symptoms or since the positive test.
“The CDC released these guidelines prior to publication of supporting evidence or full explanation of how they would be implemented in all situations such as schools and daycare centers,” BRHD officials wrote. “Many of our children are not yet vaccinated and younger children may have difficulty complying with the very strict mask requirements. In addition to questions about implementation, we are seeing our highest rates of COVID infection since the pandemic began.”
Citing those factors and the goal of keeping students in school, BRHD said it recommended schools and daycares stick with their current protocols.
The health district will host a virtual town hall 7 p.m. Jan. 4 to discuss the new guidelines.