Virginia public schools are reopening under a new law, SB 1303, which requires all schools to make in-person instruction available for the minimum standard required instructional hours — virtual learning can be provided, but must be optional. However, that doesn’t mean that local districts can’t choose to go virtual-only for limited amounts of time, as Rappahanock County Public Schools is currently demonstrating. On Monday, the district announced that amid rising COVID-19 and flu cases, the school was moving to virtual-only until August 27 while the district implements new mitigation strategies.
Superintendent Shannon Grimsley said in a letter to parents that districts are only allowed ten days of unscheduled distance learning for the whole year unless Virginia Department of Health (VDH) officials say a temporary closure is needed. Grimsley said the VDH hadn’t recommended going virtual but that the time was needed to allow time for the mitigation measures to be put in place and for students and staff. The mitigation strategies listed include universal masking, a model to limit switching between classes, re-configuring seating to optimize distance, expanding the local contact tracing team, more cleaning, opening a telehealth wellness center, and a COVID-19 dashboard.
“Now, please understand that once these measures are in place, the risk of contracting COVID or being quarantined is not gone. We need everyone to work together to limit exposure and make smart decisions to keep us all safe. Once these new practices are in place, RCPS, as a rule, will not issue changes to modality or closures based on single case incidences. So, unless you or your child are identified as a close contact and asked to quarantine, or unless VDH or the state issues a closure order, you can expect RCPS to be open,” Grimsley said.
COVID-19 cases in Virginia have climbed back to February 2021 levels, with the VDH reporting a seven-day moving average of 2,117 cases on August 17. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association is also reporting a climb in the amount of hospitalizations with a seven-day moving average of 1,287 COVID-19 hospitalizations on August 23, matching levels from early March.
SB 1303 does allow school districts to work with local health departments to provide fully remote virtual learning or a hybrid approach if transmission of COVID-19 within a school building is at a high level, but that should be limited to “as long as it is necessary to address and ameliorate the level of transmission of COVID-19 in the school building.”
Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) guidance emphasizes the importance of in-person learning and says to prioritize education over extracurricular activities. It advises districts to focus on prevention through vaccination, physical distancing, masks, and hand hygiene.
“When prevention strategies — especially vaccination, mask use and physical distancing — are consistently and correctly used, the risk of transmission in the school environment is decreased,” the guidelines state.
Other districts are also having to make sudden changes due to local COVID-19 cases. On August 19, Hopewell City Public Schools (HCPS) announced that all classes both in-person and virtual would be cancelled on August 20. An HCPS statement explained that due to COVID-19 quarantines, some positive cases, and routine sick leave requests, the district didn’t have enough staff.
“Friday was a day in which we needed to close because the number of staff who were out was impacting our ability to safely operate school. We weren’t sure at that point when we would have adequate staff back, but we consulted with VDOE and the VDH as we monitored this and all of our relevant health data,” the district said.
Over the weekend, the district held a voluntary COVID-19 testing event for staff, and determined that they would be able to re-open August 23.
“This is primarily attributed to less people requesting leave Monday (sick or personal) AND a number of staff who will, after the 3 days this weekend, come back from their required quarantines,” the district said.
Future response to COVID-19 cases in other districts might be similar.
During a Monday school board meeting Chesapeake Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton explained the VDOE’s guidelines for analyzing levels of school impact and how the district would respond. He said his district would work with the local health department in its decision making.
“This is not a light switch,” Cotton said. “This is not something that just happens automatically based on a certain number of cases or outbreaks. We look at all of the information when we’re making those decisions. Lots of times people want something to trigger a move to virtual learning, and this is too complex to handle it like that.”
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