RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — The Virginia Department of Education (VDE) released new coronavirus guidelines Thursday that encourage Virginia’s school districts to safely hold classes in-person.
The 14-page document is a stark departure from previous advice, as it makes a case for some face-to-face learning to continue on, even when virus transmission rates in the community are high.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) said the guidelines mark the beginning of a new emphasis from his administration on the topic of learning during the pandemic.
“Instead of ‘schools should be closed,’ we’re going to approach it from the starting point of schools need to be open, and here are the ways to do that safely,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in his Thursday press conference.
Some students in Virginia — including those attending several Hampton Roads districts — haven’t had any in-person education since mid-March 2019 when Northam ordered schools closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
In recent months, Northam had said that schools are not where community spread has become problematic.
Rather, in a letter to superintendents and local health directors, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver and Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane both advised making decisions by balancing the risks associated with spreading COVID-19 with “the long-term effects of students not attending school in person.”
“We expect our school boards to look at this and make decisions,” Lane said Thursday.
VDE’s updated Interim Guidance to K-12 Reopening provides guidelines for schools to use to assess the risk of introduction and transmission of COVID-19.
The guide provides five main steps to assist with reopening decisions.
- Self Assessment of Implementation of Mitigation Strategies
- Determine the Level of Community Transmission
- Determine the Level of School Impact (if school has been open to in-person instruction)
- Understanding Community Needs
- Decide which groups to include for in-person learning and the timeline for phasing in additional groups
In layman’s terms: students can be back in the classroom even as cases counts rise if the school is prepared.
Lane said that when schools have put proper health protocols in place, they’ve seen few outbreaks, and the outbreaks that did happen have had fewer than five cases.
“Even in the context of moderate transmission in the community, we can still open schools safely,” Lane said.
Lane also said staff vaccinations are not necessarily needed to reopen schools safely.
But Virginia is also seeing major virus levels, with more than 20% positivity rates in Hampton Roads. That’s something Virginia’s teachers’ union wants to emphasize while teachers are still in the process of being vaccinated in phase 1b.
“If you’re indoors and not wearing a mask … you’re not doing your part to help reopen schools,” said Dr. James Fedderman, the president of the Virginia Education Association, who says he’s also a COVID-19 survivor. “Simply put, schools are not the place to be while this virus surges.”
Some teachers have already gotten their first vaccine dose — two are needed for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — but many haven’t yet. In Hampton Roads, only Chesapeake’s teachers have been vaccinated at this time.
The CDC also recommends the use of three core indicators (mitigation assessment, 14-day case incidence, and/or RT-PCR test positivity) to assess the risk of transmission in schools and to inform decisions about school programming.
For schools that have previously offered in-person instruction, VDH also recommends they consider the level of impact to a given school when assessing mitigation capacity.
It recommends that schools assess their ability to implement and adhere to the five key mitigation strategies.
Secondary indicators can be used to support the decision-making process in local communities, but should not be used as the main criteria for determining the risk of disease transmission in schools.
Schools open for in-person instruction should evaluate the level of impact that COVID-19 transmission has had within their specific school.
Some considerations include:
- Number of outbreaks experienced and their proximity in time to each other
- Size of any outbreak(s) (number of cases/close contacts identified)
- Level of spread within the school (e.g., whether cases are confined to a particular classroom or grade level)
- Level of student and/or staff absenteeism due to illness, and the staff/faculty capacity.
These criteria and impact levels may change during the school year as more information becomes available on how COVID-19 impacts schools.
Assigned community transmission and mitigation school impact levels can be used to help identify when offering in-person instruction may be reasonable to consider, how to transition learning as community transmission levels change, and how to prioritize certain groups of students.
This is intended to be a guide, and schools may choose to take a more or less restrictive approach than what is suggested in this table.
Understanding the community’s needs and capacity (step four) should help inform which groups of students should be prioritized for in-person instruction when mitigation and community transmission levels allow.
Once all students have been provided an opportunity for in-person instruction, schools can consider adding extracurricular activities, including athletics, if the impact to school remains favorable.
Regardless of approach, VDE says schools should maintain remote learning options for staff and students who are high-risk.