By Stefanie Jackson – Since Northampton schools Superintendent Eddie Lawrence announced last month that he expects all K-12 students to be back in the classroom four days a week by Christmas – despite the COVID-19 pandemic – he’s been getting questions about how he makes his decisions.
The short answer is it’s all based on the data.
“Currently, we have no students who are positive, that we know of. We have no students who are quarantined, that we know of. We have no instructional staff or support staff that are positive or quarantined, that we know of,” Lawrence said during the Nov. 18 school board meeting.
Several teachers and students have stayed home for a few days while awaiting COVID-19 test results, but the tests came back negative and everyone returned to school.
Lawrence also considers data from the Virginia Department of Health, published and updated daily on its website, and guidance from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The VDH school data can be searched at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/key-measures/pandemic-metrics/school-metrics/
For every Virginia county or city, the risk of COVID-19 transmission, from lowest to highest, is color-coded as follows: lowest risk, dark green; lower risk, light green; moderate risk, yellow; higher risk, orange; and highest risk, red.
As of Nov. 18, over the previous 14 days, Northampton had nearly 111 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people, and the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests was 4.5%.
The number of new COVID-19 cases was a higher risk factor, but the overall COVID-19 test positivity rate was a lower risk factor.
The percentage of hospital inpatient beds occupied in the region was less than 70%, and the percentage of those beds occupied by COVID-19 patients was less than 4%, both low risk factors.
During the same period, the data for Accomack was similar – about 117 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people, and a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 5%.
According to the CDC, when making decisions about school operations, administrators are expected to consider three core indicators – the number of COVID-19 cases and the test positivity rate, plus the school division’s ability to follow guidelines for wearing face masks, social distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, and contact tracing in cooperation with the local health department.
Both Northampton and Accomack are at higher risk for transmission of COVID-19, but across the Chesapeake Bay, the cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Chesapeake are at highest risk.
Only two Virginia counties – Middlesex and Lunenburg – are at moderate risk for COVID-19 transmission, and no locality is at low risk for transmission.
Lawrence pointed out that no school on the Eastern Shore has been identified as the source of a COVID-19 outbreak, and “luck has shined upon Northampton County.”
He noted that the entire school division does not need to shut down to prevent transmission of COVID-19. A closure can apply to one school, hall, or a single classroom.
Nandua High School, in Accomack County, reported an outbreak in progress to VDH on Oct. 21, but there is no data available on the related number of COVID-19 cases. The data is updated every Friday.
VDH notes that “the presence of an outbreak at a school does not reflect a school’s ability to educate its students or to protect the health and safety of its school community.”
The next grade levels that will be allowed to return to school in person four days a week are third and seventh grade.
The return of the seventh grade is delayed because the middle school classrooms are configured differently from the elementary classrooms, and plastic safety shields are needed between rows of desks to keep students separated.
Plastic safety shields were ordered for both the seventh and eighth grade.