As area school boards make plans for the second quarter of classes, officials should use recently released federal indicators and thresholds related to the spread of COVID-19, the Virginia Department of Health recommended Monday as officials launched a new data dashboard related to the pandemic.
Officials with VDH cautioned, though, that any decision about school programming is a local one and should be made in conjunction with local public health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s indicators — which include new cases over the last 14 days and the percent of positive cases — also should be assessed in conjunction with one another, not separately.
“What this tool tries to do is pull some of this information together so you have a more comprehensive picture,” state epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake said during a media briefing. “There’s just not one metric that can be perfect. You have to look at a number of different metrics, and they all have strengths and they all have limitations.”
The CDC’s indicators and metrics gauge risk levels for schools based on the COVID-19 numbers for lowest to highest. At the highest risk level, school leaders should still strive to provide in-person classes to students with disabilities, VDH said in its guidance to schools.
Monday’s announcement comes as local school boards are set to consider recommendations about in-person classes for the second quarter. Charlottesville and Albemarle started the year with online classes, though some Albemarle students have in-person access to the buildings.
Charlottesville school officials said last week that they are no longer considering starting in-person classes in October as they previously proposed to the division’s COVID-19 advisory committee.
Neither board has said which specific metrics they would like to see before opening up in-person classes to more students despite calls from teachers to do so.
Charlottesville is in the highest risk of transmission when looking at new cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days. The city has added 623.5 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the dashboard. The city’s percent positivity rate of 5% falls in the lower risk category.
Albemarle County, which had 123.3 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days, is in the higher risk category for that indicator, while the percent positivity of 4.2% is considered lower risk.
When asked how school officials should weigh the different risk levels across the indicators, Peake said they should work with local health departments to understand the data and if something could be skewing the results.
“It’s important for school officials to work hand in hand with the health department and interpret [the data] in the best way they can,” she said.
Monday’s announcement included the launch of the Pandemics Metrics dashboard created to help better describe the current disease burden and trends for the state’s health regions, not for the health districts or localities. That dashboard also includes a section on the CDC indicators, which were released earlier this month.
The dashboards will be updated seven days a week.
VDH officials said Monday that the dashboard and other documents are meant to guide, not dictate, decisions by local leaders.
The CDC identified three core indicators — the total number of cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days; the 14-day positivity rate; and the ability of a school to implement five mitigation strategies — and provided metrics for each to gauge the risk of transmission in schools. Secondary indicators include the percent change of new cases in the last seven days compared with the previous week; the number of hospital beds occupied; and if new cases suddenly increase in an area.
VDH also aligned the CDC indicators with the state’s phased guidance for Virginia schools. In Phase Three, all students can receive in-person instruction as long as schools implement strict physical distancing and other mitigation strategies. Remote learning is the standard in Phase One.
For localities with the highest risk of transmission, schools should follow the guidance for Phase One and Two. In Phase Two, schools can offer limited in-person instruction to students with disabilities, English language learners and preschoolers through third-graders.
Those localities at the lowest or lower risk of transmission should use the Phase Three guidance, while those with a moderate or higher risk of transmission should follow Phase Two.
Holly Coy, Virginia’s assistant superintendent for policy, equity and communication, said the state’s guidance to schools continues to prioritize the needs of students who have been most impacted by school building closures and for whom in-person instruction is most beneficial.
“That includes our students with disabilities, English learners and young students in preschool through third grade,” she said. “But it simultaneously recognizes the disruption that school building closures have had on all students and seeks to bring them back to the classroom as soon as it is safe and practicable.”
Data in the CDC section is slightly different from the rest of the Pandemic Metrics dashboard. State officials said Monday that they’ll evaluate the Pandemic Metrics and CDC indicators over the next two weeks to see if they should align VDH metrics to the CDC’s thresholds.
After the trial period ends, VDH officials could release more data at the locality level. The dashboard includes daily and weekly trends. The daily section includes data on the daily case incidence rates, daily percent positivity, rate of outbreaks and five other metrics.
The Thomas Jefferson Health District is part of the VDH’s Northwest region. The dashboard used those eight data points to calculate a composite score that determines whether the transmission extent is minimal, low, moderate or high. The region is currently described as a fluctuating moderate community transmission level.
More information about how the score and other data points are measured is available at vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/key-measures/pandemic-metrics.
The Pandemic Metrics dashboard has been in use since June and was shared with school boards starting in July to inform their decisions about the current school year. Data from the dashboard has been used by local school boards since late July; however, the dashboard hadn’t been available to the public until Monday.
Peake said the department decided to make the dashboard public because of the CDC’s release of its indicators and thresholds.
“These are more technical dashboards,” Peake said. “It’s interesting, and we wanted to put it out there because these CDC thresholds now are public facing. We want people to be able to understand what’s going on in Virginia.”