By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton school board was presented a plan Aug. 12 to reopen its schools in September, providing all students in-person learning five days a week with COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place.
Earlier that day, Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver had announced a mask mandate for “all students, in all K-12 schools, both public and private,” rendering moot all previous discussions about face masks, said Superintendent Eddie Lawrence.
The school division had already planned to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and require all students and staff to wear face masks, regardless of vaccination status, so the plan did not need to be updated before the school board meeting that evening.
Northampton students also will be required to wear face masks on the school bus, and no student who has a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be permitted to board the bus.
A student must have a normal temperature for 24 hours without taking medication before the student may return to school and ride the bus.
Lawrence noted that temperature checks did not appear to help detect COVID-19 last school year, but they did keep children with other illnesses out of school, and administrators were “adamant” about continuing the practice.
Student participation in school breakfast increased after the implementation of the Grab & Go breakfast program, which will continue this year in all Northampton schools.
Lunch will be served in each school cafeteria, with additional custodians cleaning and sanitizing the cafeteria between lunch periods. Lawrence noted the lunch schedules may need to be more staggered to allow as much social distancing as possible between students.
Teachers once again may take students to the school playgrounds for recess, since the CDC does not require face masks to be worn outdoors.
The Occohannock Elementary School playground will be open on the first day of school, but the Kegotank Elementary School playground may be closed in September while facility upgrades are completed, Lawrence noted.
Lawrence asked the school board to consider what action it will take when the CDC lifts its current guidance on face masks.
He recommended that Northampton schools continue to require the wearing of face masks until at least 70% of students and staff are vaccinated for COVID-19. His rationale for the recommendation was that a 70% vaccination rate is often used as an indicator of herd immunity.
School board member Liz Jones asked if there was anything the school division could do to help students get vaccinated, such as offering the COVID-19 vaccine at a back-to-school night event.
Lawrence said that may be possible but if the Virginia Department of Health offered the COVID-19 vaccine in Northampton schools, a permission slip would not be sufficient and no child would be vaccinated without a parent present.
“Even though the chance of a serious reaction is minuscule – if it’s your child, it’s not minuscule,” he said.
Lawrence reminded school board members also to consider that students and staff would need to show documentation that they had been vaccinated if his recommendation is implemented.
Jones asked how COVID-19 contact tracing protocols had changed since last school year.
Lawrence noted that when vaccinated teachers or students come in close contact with a person who has COVID-19, they do not need to quarantine if they have no symptoms of COVID-19.
However, an unvaccinated teacher or student who is found to have been a close contact of someone with COVID-19 must be sent home to quarantine.
Teachers or students who are infected with COVID-19 must isolate at home, and they may return to school 10 days after they first experienced symptoms if they have not had a fever for 24 hours.