Albemarle County schools’ health and safety protocols, developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be tested in a week when thousands more students return to school buildings for classes.
The new procedures and protocols, ranging from daily health screenings to social distancing, have been in use since some students started coming into buildings last month for help with online classes.
Next month marks the first time the division has held in-person classes since March, when schools were closed amid the burgeoning pandemic. As part of Stage Three of the division’s reopening plan, officials expect about half of eligible students to attend classes in-person twice a week. That option is open to preschoolers through third-graders. More students were also invited into the buildings for in-person assistance with virtual learning.
During Stage Two, less than 1,000 students were in school buildings. In-person classes for Stage Three will start Nov. 11.
Eileen Gomez, the COVID-19 coordinator for Albemarle County, said the division is continuing to modify the protocols, which were developed over the summer, as state and federal guidance changes.
Gomez has helped to coordinate the division’s response to the pandemic since assuming the new role over the summer. She previously worked as a school nurse.
Division officials have worked over the last several months to develop the new procedures and protocols to implement strategies aimed at lowering the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools. Protocols include health screenings, mask requirements, social distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection and contract tracing with the local health department.
Ahead of the start of Stage Three, Gomez said she was working on the different protocols and communications to parents about what they need to know before returning.
“We have had everything mapped out, but we’re just kind of modifying now as more information becomes available,” Gomez said.
Since schools started Sept. 8, 13 employees and one contractor have tested positive. Twelve of those cases are among school-based employees. So far, no one has contracted the virus while at work, according to the division.
The new measures will start right away when students get to the buildings when they have their temperatures checked.
Before leaving for school, employees and students are asked to conduct a daily health screening. That health screening includes five yes or no questions about symptoms, recent COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis and if the person is currently waiting on results of a test. A no answer on any question means they can’t enter school buildings.
The Virginia Department of Health recommended that schools strongly encourage families, faculty and staff to self-monitor their symptoms and stay home if they are ill.
The division said on its Return to School webpage that it’s the responsibility of the parent or guardian to affirm that they believe their child is free of COVID-19 symptoms.
At the schools, all students, staff and visitors have to have their temperature checked. Anyone with a 100-degree temperature will be sent home.
Gomez said students with a temperature of 100 degrees or more will have to step aside to have their temperatures rechecked. If their temperature is still above the threshold, they’ll go to the school nurse’s office for another check. If they still have a fever on the third check, Gomez said the nurse will call the child’s parent to come get them and provide further guidance to families.
Each school has designated an “isolation room” for those who develop symptoms. Students and staff members might be referred for a medical evaluation depending on whether they met other criteria, such as a fever and cough that lasts for more than one day and is not attributable to other causes.
Symptomatic students can return to school if they test negative, are fever-free for 24 hours and have not been in close contact with someone known to have COVID-19, according to the division’s Return to School form. Families also can seek a medical evaluation to have the student cleared.
Those who don’t pursue either option will have to stay home for 10 days after the first day of symptoms and when they are fever-free for 24 hours. During that time, siblings or household members will be excluded from school as well, per the form.
The health district is in charge of investigating positive cases of COVID-19 in the area, including the schools. Gomez said her team will help identify students and staff members who might be considered close contacts of an infected individual.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded the definition for close contacts to anyone who had been within six feet of the person with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period as opposed to one 15-minute interaction. Those who are close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days.
Under the previous definition, few people would have to quarantine after somebody is diagnosed with COVID-19.
“But with a new one, I think we’re gonna have a lot more so the quarantine net is going to be larger based on the new definition,” Gomez said.
The health district monitors those who are quarantined because of an exposure to the virus as well those who are isolating after testing positive. The state uses an automated message tool that allows people to report any signs and symptoms during quarantine and remind them when they have completed the quarantine period.
Gomez said the school nurses will be responsible for helping to identify the close contacts for school-based employees who test positive. Two people in the county’s human resources department work with those who work in departments rather than schools such as building services or nutrition.
Gomez said division staff can start the contact tracing process because they usually hear from the employee about their diagnosis before the health department gets that information.
“We start by talking to the employee and walking through the steps of the employee’s day while at school during the period of time that the employee was considered contagious, so that is 48 hours before the onset of symptoms,” Gomez said. “Prior to the new guidance, we were seeing if they were within six feet of anybody for 15 or more consecutive minutes. Now that it’s changed, we’re going to have to change as we walk through their day to record all the interactions that employee had, and then try to add up to see if they were closer than six feet for 15 or more minutes over a 24 hour period.”
If a student contracts the virus, Gomez said she thinks they’ll talk to the teacher to determine the close contacts.
“They’re going to be in groups or pods, and part of the reason for that is that it will be easier for contact tracing,” Gomez said. “We’re not going to be mixing the groups, so likely it will either be the entire class or pod, or part of the class. We’re thinking that it might not have to be extended into other classes.”
Families are not required to report cases to the schools.
Health district spokeswoman Kathryn Goodman said earlier this month that a child’s name is only shared with the school with the express permission of the family for the purposes of contact tracing.
“We can also work with the school to conduct contact tracing without sharing the name of the individual,” she said. “Enough information is provided by the investigative team to conduct thorough contact tracing.”
As of Friday, there are 10 outbreaks in progress in Virginia schools. An outbreak is defined as two or more people testing positive because of exposure at school or work.
All COVID cases are reported to the health department, and conducting outbreak investigations is not reliant on one source.