An Albemarle County parent has filed a complaint with the state attorney general calling the county school systems policies of requiring unvaccinated students to take weekly tests and self-quarantine discriminatory.
Dargan Coggeshall, whose daughter attends Western Albemarle High School, said he hasn’t heard back yet from the attorney general’s office, but he’s hoping the division rethinks the rules for unvaccinated students.
“These students are not only experiencing different treatment due to a medical decision for which [school officials] have no authority to make, they are also being deprived of a free and appropriate education because of a medical condition,” he wrote in an email to the School Board shared with The Daily Progress.
Coggeshall said a requirement that unvaccinated students must quarantine when having close contact with someone who tests positive when vaccinated students do not, points them out to peers.
“By virtue of their conspicuous disappearance (while some students don’t disappear), the school is also inadvertently disclosing their vaccination status,” he said.
Currently, the Albemarle County and Charlottesville school divisions require unvaccinated students to quarantine 10 days at the recommendation of the Blue Ridge Health District. Students who have recovered from COVID-19 within the previous 90 days don’t have to quarantine or take a weekly test, according to state guidance.
In addition to quarantining when in close contact of someone who tested positive, Albemarle County and other school divisions also require unvaccinated students to provide weekly proof of a negative test in order to participate in athletics and some other extracurricular activities.
Families are responsible for the cost of testing. A negative at-home test is not sufficient to meet the requirement.
The different policies come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Virginia Department of Health also has recommended different quarantine approaches for vaccinated and unvaccinated students, following the CDC’s lead.
But those requirements amount to a mandate for a vaccine that’s not on the state-approved vaccination schedule, Coggeshall has argued in emails.
Coggeshall has argued in emails to division officials that the delta and omicron variants call for a new approach and requested information underlying their decisions, specifically a peer-reviewed study. Officials largely pointed back to the health district and public health data, according to the emails shared with The Progress.
However, health district officials have repeatedly said at town halls that specific policies are up to the discretion of the school divisions. In recent weeks, some area school systems have chosen to limit the required quarantine for unvaccinated students to five days while others have stopped contact tracing.
The issue has been raised a handful of times at School Board meetings, particularly after administrators instituted the testing requirement for unvaccinated athletes. However, the board has not publicly discussed the provisions at-length for unvaccinated students.
Coggeshall said the decision for his kids not to get vaccinated was simple.
“I have two healthy children who have no underlying health conditions,” he said. “The benefit of the vaccine, which primarily limits catastrophic outcomes, is negligible to them.”
Coggeshall said he has yet to find evidence or has been convinced that his unvaccinated teens put the community, their friends or teammates at greater risk than a vaccinated teen. The school system protocols and recommendations seem arbitrary to Coggeshall, especially since his daughters’ vaccinated peers have gotten COVID.
About 87% of children ages 12 to 15 in Albemarle County and 86% of those ages 16 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to state data.
According to CDC’s webpage on omicron, the agency expects that anyone infected with the variant is able to spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.
Across the country, some Republican lawmakers have sought to prevent different treatment for unvaccinated people. In Virginia, lawmakers and state officials have targeted vaccine mandates, though Gov. Glenn Youngkin has encouraged people to get vaccinated.
In new guidance from the state health department issued shortly after Youngkin’s inauguration, vaccination was the top prevention strategy. The department also recommended weekly screening tests for unvaccinated students participating in high-risk sports and extracurricular activities.
Albemarle Public Schools Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said that 165 student-athletes had to quarantine as close contacts of teammates who tested positive before the testing requirement went into effect. Since then, none have.
For Julie Despres, the testing requirement has presented a challenge for her family. She has a son at Monticello High School who planned to play soccer this spring. So far, tests have been expensive and the free ones have been harder to find, especially last month during the surge in cases.
“It’s stressful,” she said. “He feels bad that I have to spend the money.”
Despres would like to see a policy where all student-athletes have to take a weekly COVID test.
“Test everyone or nobody,” she said.
Currently, the division doesn’t shift students to virtual school when they have to quarantine.
Instead, they receive asynchronous work they can do independently, according to a division spokesman. Asynchronous means a student learns material through modules, discussion boards, pre-recorded videos or other means instead of in-person classes.
“Any student who quarantines, whether student athlete or not, is supported by the school they attend in terms of staying current on their studies,” he said. “Students are not marked absent and in many cases, the instruction they receive is asynchronous.”
Despres said her son has not quarantined because of an exposure at school so far, but she’s worried about what will happen if he does.
“It’s definitely a pretty big consequence to be forced out of school for 10 days, because you’re sitting next to a positive child,” she said. “He has the right to have school. There’s nothing in place for these kids. They go home for 10 days and that’s it.”
Despres said she decided against getting the COVID-19 vaccine based on conversations with her family’s doctor.
“I choose to trust the doctors that we use in our family,” she said. “They may be different than anybody else’s, but that’s no reason for discrimination.”
She’s also found it difficult to keep up with the changing recommendations and rules, and doesn’t trust public health agencies. She also doesn’t think her children are at risk from the virus.
“He’s healthy and has been wearing a mask,” she said of her son.
The Centers for Disease Control recommend everyone five years old and older get vaccinated for COVID-19. To learn more or to make an appointment, go to vdh.virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-vaccination.
CDC officials say more than 539 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given in the U.S. from December 2020 to January 2022 and serious or dangerous side effects are extremely rare.
That does not soothe Despres, however.
“I don’t fear the virus; I fear the vaccine,” she said, adding that she had COVID-19 last fall. “But I would never ask somebody to do something that felt so wrong and could harm their child to protect me or my child.”
Despres said she doesn’t judge those in her family who have been vaccinated and is glad they feel safe to make that decision.
“That must be a relief,” she said.