The School Board on Tuesday adopted additional measurements designed to tailor future classroom closures when coronavirus outbreaks occur, but it remained uncertain when in-person learning will resume.
The school division’s hybrid learning program—providing at least two days of in-person classes per week to students who selected that option—was suspended just before the winter break when COVID-19 cases increased above adopted safety levels in mid-December. At that time about 7,000 students in grades K-5 and others in specialized programs had been participating in hybrid learning. Many school leaders had hoped to expand that offering to middle and high school students starting next week, with the beginning of the second semester. However, with caseloads now at the highest level since May, that won’t be happening.
The focus now is getting at least the youngest pupils and special education student back in classrooms by early next month. And that effort may not only be linked to a reduction in community spread but also the pace at which educators can be vaccinated.
On Tuesday the School Board adopted procedures that would avoid an automatic division-wide school closure based on measures of community spread. Instead, in-person learning would be suspended in individual classes, schools or school clusters if outbreaks occur.
That was a welcome change for board members who have been pushing to increase in-person learning. They point to the remarkably low known instances of on-campus transmissions of the virus—only 12 such events since the pandemic began, according to the staff—and the educational and mental health benefits that come with having students in classrooms.
However, a board majority has focused on concerns that efforts to ensure the safety of staff and students have fallen short and that the increasing post-holiday caseload make a return to class unsafe.
Following Tuesday’s action, school campuses will not reopen until the division’s original trigger is met. The number of new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period must fall below 200 for five consecutive days or the 14-day average positivity rate of COVID-19 PCR tests must fall below 10% for five consecutive days.
The number of new cases per 100,000 people currently stands at 421 and hasn’t been below 200 for months. The more likely trigger to allow in-person learning to resume is the positivity rate, which is at 17.1% but has been declining in recent days.
Widespread vaccinations are viewed as critical to reduce both caseload measurements. As of Wednesday, just over 8,300 Loudoun residents had received at least one of the two shots required to complete the vaccination.
Among the reasons School Board members opted not to bring at least some students back to class this month is a concern that such action would slow the effort to get educators vaccinated.
As the board has pushed to put teachers to the front of the line for the limited number of vaccinations, the staff has been working with the Health Department to create a dedicated point of distribution for educators. Forty-five of the division’s registered nurses have undergone training to administer the vaccines and 49 other members of the health staff have volunteered to help with that process.
Concerns about the vaccine effort resulted in the majority rejecting efforts supported by Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge), Jeff Morse (Dulles) and John Beatty (Catoctin) to resume hybrid learning more quickly.
If students were to return to classrooms, those medical staffers would not be available to participate in the vaccination push, board members were told.
Board members also asked for ways to track the number of teachers who receive the vaccine and urged the staff to look for ways to expand the vaccination effort beyond school hours—to nights and weekends—to speed the process.
When to resume the hybrid program is scheduled to next be considered at the board’s Jan. 26 meeting.
When classes do resume, there will be some additional features in place.
First, Interim Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler announced plans for a system that will allow school staff members to anonymously report violations of mitigation protocols designed to stem the spread of the virus on campus. That is designed to address a key concern of teachers and the Loudoun Education Association that school safety efforts remain inconsistent or inadequate.
Also, the staff has installed thermal cameras at the entrances to all schools and most school buildings that will detect individuals who may have a high temperature. The passive systems will provide alerts to administrators.
Students riding the bus to and from school now will have WIFI connectivity. Each of the division’s 823 buses have been equipped to offer content-filtered internet connections to up to 65 students simultaneously.
The thermal cameras and WIFI equipment were purchased using federal CARES Act funding.