By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack and Northampton public schools are using multiple tools to keep students and staff safe as they return to school in person after closing due to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases following winter vacation.
“School is actually safer than home,” said Accomack schools Coordinator of School Health Services Tonya Martin on Monday.
The decision to allow Accomack students to return to school Jan. 25 was made when COVID-19 numbers showed a steady decline over an approximately two-week period.
Superintendent Chris Holland had made the call to close schools late in the evening Sunday, Jan. 10, when Accomack reported 77 new cases of COVID-19, the most cases reported in the county in a single day since reporting began in late March.
Martin has been closely monitoring the COVID-19 data trends via multiple sources, including the COVID-19 dashboard of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), which can be found at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covid-19-in-virginia/
Another source of COVID-19 data is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) school metrics published on the VDH website, used to determine the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in schools.
One core indicator of the risk of transmission is the number of new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people reported within the previous 14 days. That number approached 1,200 last week in Accomack.
However, the population of Accomack is nowhere near 100,000. Based on the county’s population of approximately 33,000, the actual number of COVID-19 cases reported over the previous 14 days was about 400, Martin noted.
Sunday, Jan. 24, the day before Accomack students returned to the classroom, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in a 14-day period had dropped to about 750 per 100,000 people, or approximately 250 actual cases.
The new VDH guidelines for K-12 schools state, “Each indicator or combination of indicators should neither be used in isolation nor should they be viewed as hard cut-offs by state and local officials and school district decision-makers. Rather, they serve as broad guideposts of inherent risk to inform decision-making.”
No COVID-19 data from any source is examined in isolation. Martin also speaks daily with J.J. Justis, local health emergency coordinator for the Eastern Shore Health District.
Accomack County Public Schools has experienced only one COVID-19 outbreak since September, and its size was minimal, Martin said.
An outbreak is defined as two or more people who are not related contracting the disease, she said.
Martin attributes Accomack schools’ success in handling the COVID-19 pandemic to the superintendent.
Holland was “phenomenal” and spared no expense obtaining needed supplies such as face masks, hand sanitizer, plexiglass barriers, and electrostatic sprayers, she said.
He also hired additional custodians to clean and sanitize classrooms and buses daily.
Holland says he is proud of Accomack schools’ “Return to Learn” plan, which was developed over the summer so students could resume their education in the fall, even as the COVID-19 pandemic wore on.
The “Return to Learn” plan allowed parents to choose either the virtual or hybrid learning option for their children. Virtual students complete all their school work at home, and hybrid students spend two days a week in school and two at home.
A student does not need an excuse from school to learn from home, but teachers who want to work from home must be at high risk of severe illness as defined by the CDC, according to the VDH guidelines for schools.
Adults at high risk of severe illness include older adults (80% of reported COVID-19 deaths have been in adults age 65 or older) and people with certain medical conditions.
(The CDC’s list of medical conditions that put adults at high risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 can be viewed at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html)
Allowing all teachers the option of working from home would not be possible since not all students are learning from home.
Northampton schools Superintendent Eddie Lawrence noted during a Jan. 20 interview that teachers cannot access all of their teaching materials from home, and some lack internet access.
Moreover, students attending class in person require adult supervision, and substitute teachers are scarce, he said.
Even though “not feeling comfortable” in the school building isn’t a valid reason for working from home, it’s “understandable,” Lawrence said, and additional COVID-19 mitigation can make teachers feel more at ease.
For example, a plexiglass shield can be attached to a teacher’s desk, or furniture can be rearranged or removed from the classroom so students can be spaced farther apart, he said.
Getting kids the education they need while keeping everyone in the school building safe is “a huge balancing act,” Lawrence said.
Keeping the schools staffed is a challenge since teachers and staff miss work not only when they have COVID-19 or another illness but also when they are in quarantine, waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test, he said.
But the COVID-19 vaccine will be a “game changer,” Lawrence said.
Martin agreed that the COVID-19 vaccine will make a big difference.
Nearly 600 Accomack schools employees already have signed up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine through the school system, Martin said.
Holland denied a rumor that Accomack schools administrators have received the vaccine ahead of teachers.
He said that some individuals may have received the COVID-19 vaccine through private health care providers, but Accomack schools had not held a vaccination event for administrators.
Martin, a registered nurse, has received the vaccine through her other employer, Riverside Medical Group.
Accomack students are back in class, but parents shouldn’t anticipate in-person learning expanding from two to four days a week yet.
Classrooms still must accommodate students spaced six feet apart, as per CDC guidelines, which are “not changing anytime soon,” Holland said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics considers spacing desks at least three feet apart acceptable, but Accomack schools will continue to follow CDC recommendations, which also apply to buses, Holland noted.
Students with disabilities, English learners, and younger students will be prioritized for future expansion of in-person learning, in accordance with VDH guidelines.
Holland said the key for the school division is to be “flexible” and act according to the COVID-19 data whether it trends up or down.