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Local students heading back to school amid record COVID-19 surge

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In-person classes will resume for Charlottesville and, presumably, Albemarle County students on Monday after a week’s delay, but omicron could make the return challenging.

While schools were closed last week, the Blue Ridge Health District reported 2,260 new cases. The district is averaging 322 new cases on average over a seven-day period, which eclipses records set during the 2021 winter surge.

With numbers rising so sharply, the school systems shared plans for a potential shift to virtual learning. The decision to switch to online classes will be made on a class-by-class and school-by-school basis and based on several metrics, superintendents said.

For Charlottesville, those metrics include employee absences, the number of cases in schools and student absences.

“I’m using those three things, but I’m listening and I’m looking at what’s happening in the schools. I’m just not going to let it create a situation where it’s over burdening our staff members,” Charlottesville schools superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. told board members last week.

In the past week, 25 Charlottesville students have reported a positive COVID-19 result to the school division as have 30 employees, according to the division dashboard. Albemarle County has not updated its dashboard this week.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe that the number of reported cases that we have are all the cases,” said Beth Baptist, acting director of human resources and students services for Charlottesville City Schools.

Gurley said that principals spent the last week developing pivot plans that detail how they’ll deploy computers and WiFi hotspots, among other aspects, if a switch is necessary.

To track staff absences, Gurley said principals and central office will use a shared document to provide live data. Each school has a minimum number of teachers and support staff needed to operate. If a school drops below that number for consecutive days, administrators will evaluate options.

Although case numbers have reached record highs in recent weeks, Gurley and other school officials have pointed to the first several months of the school year as evidence that they can safely keep schools using a range of mitigation measures.

In the community. COVID-19 is setting a record with the number of cases, most recently created by the highly contagious omicron variant.

In a message to families this week, Albemarle schools Superintendent Matt Haas said the division would monitor COVID-19 cases by classroom and school and its ability to staff each class and school. Administrators would use that data and consult with the health district about whether a class or school should temporarily move online.

For Charlottesville, all the other measures, such as social distancing and 14-day quarantine, will remain in place. Board members also said that they supported keeping the mask policy in place even if state orders change. They also want to see more high-quality masks such as KN95s for staff members.

Gurley said that the division is looking into purchasing those masks for employees. The division has the money but is constrained by the availability of masks.

“To get them, we are at the mercy of the supply chain and what they want to charge right now,” Gurley said.

Albemarle County spokesman Phil Giaramita said the division provides KN95 masks upon request and has enough supply to outfit all employees. The division also has an adequate supply of paper masks to meet the needs of students, he said.

The Albemarle County School Board will hear a COVID update at its next meeting, Jan. 13.

The health district will hold a virtual town hall at 7 p.m. Monday to discuss the latest data and federal guidance. For more information, go to fb.me/e/1mvPs6Gxo.

Charlottesville has partnered with the state on a COVID-19 screening program that tests participants weekly. That resumes next week. The division also is looking to pilot a program that will allow students to take a COVID-19 test in order to stay at school rather than go into quarantine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed that “test to stay” approach last month as a way to keep children in school.

Through the state partnership, the division has received about 270 PCR tests, which detect the presence of a virus should you have the virus at the time of the test is taken. However, that number is not enough to implement a division-wide test to stay program, Baptist said. She’s reached out to testing companies to inquire about getting more tests.

Charlottesville School Board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said the school system is in a different spot than it was a year ago when all classes were virtual.

“We were operating out of a lot of fear and unknown,” she said, “but we have been very successful. I’m very proud of this division and what we have put in place. But I don’t want to negate the new fear that people are processing right now.”

Larson-Torres said she was committed to having students in the building and doing that in a safe manner.

“We have to continue to wear a mask, wash your hands and socially distance — all of those layered approaches that we know,” she said. “We have to stay vigilant.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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