Gov. Ralph Northam’s call Friday for all Virginia schools to offer in-person instruction by mid-March won’t have an immediate impact on Prince William County schools, which have already met that standard and are now considering the return of thousands more students in late February and early March.
During a Friday morning press conference in Richmond, Northam called for the state’s 42 school divisions still offering only remote instruction to begin returning students to school buildings by March 15. The governor also urged schools to offer voluntary in-person summer school to help students who have fallen behind academically during the pandemic.
Citing recent CDC research, Northam said schools have not proven to be a source of rapid spread of COVID-19, something that both Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden have repeated in recent weeks. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, also said children’s health and wellbeing require that local officials find a path back to in-person learning.
“We know that this has taken a toll on our children and our families. My fellow pediatricians say they're seeing increases in behavioral problems, mental health issues, and even increases in substance abuse among their young patients,” Northam said.
“They’re writing more prescriptions, such as antidepressants and stimulants, and that's just not a good direction for us to keep going. And we're also seeing a decline in academic performance.”
Return-to-school plans would likely be different for every school division, Northam said, adding that school divisions would be asked to follow state guidance issued in January for a safe reopening of schools.
“We didn't say throw open the doors five days a week, starting tomorrow,” he said. “We said, ‘Here are the steps that you need to take.’ You can start with the students who most need that in-person instruction.”
In Prince William County, where 13,500 students are already attending school in-person on a hybrid schedule, Northam’s announcement will seemingly have little immediate impact.
During recent school board meetings, Prince William County school division officials have said the county is already following the state’s latest return-to-school guidance.
In communities with high levels of COVID-19, which includes Prince William, the guidance says school divisions should prioritize in-person instruction for the youngest and most vulnerable students.
Since the school year began, Superintendent Steven Walts has twice recommended delays in the return of students in the 4th through 12th grades for in-person, hybrid instruction mostly because of the high rate of community spread and because of his concern that schools will have more difficulty mitigating the spread of COVID-19 with thousands more students in the buildings. Walts recommended in January that older students not return to schools until April, following spring break.
The school board rejected that idea, however, and voted Jan. 12 to delay older students’ return to school by just one month, a timeline that would allow willing fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth graders to return for hybrid instruction in late February, while seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades would return in early March. All students would still be permitted to remain virtual for the rest of the year.
The school board is set to revisit that plan at their upcoming Feb. 17 school board meeting, but won’t necessarily take another vote, School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef said Thursday.
After Northam’s remarks Friday, Lateef said that even though the state’s guidance allows school divisions in areas of high community spread to prioritize younger and more vulnerable students for in-person instruction, it does not require such limits.
“If you can mitigate, you can go in even at the highest levels of community spread,” Lateef said Friday. “That is far more important than the [local COVID-19 metrics], because schools don’t contribute to community spread.”
Hundreds of students, staff still testing positive, quarantining due to COVID-19
Whether there is too much community spread to allow a safe return to schools remains a point of contention among some parents, teachers and school board members. While Lateef says the school division’s mitigation strategies are working, hundreds of students and teachers have had to quarantine because of in-school exposures to COVID-19, and some have fallen ill.
The school division has also had official “outbreaks,” as defined by the Virginia Department of Health, at both Colgan High School and at Montclair Elementary School, the latter of which was first reported Friday.
From Jan. 15 to Feb. 1, 261 students and 90 staff members had to quarantine because of a close contacts at school. At least one student and six staff members have fallen ill with COVID-19 because of an in-school exposure during that time, according to school division data presented at the Feb. 3 school board meeting.
During the same period, 328 students and 134 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Among students who tested positive, 225 were attending school virtually, 91 were attending school in-person and 12 were participating in school athletics.
Among staff who tested positive from Jan. 15 to Feb. 1, 37 were teaching virtually and 97 were working in schools in person.
Lateef called quarantining a tool to help halt the spread of the virus and said local COVID-19 metrics are improving after a post-holiday spike. The school division is in the process of vaccinating teachers against COVID-19 with 14,000 first and second inoculations scheduled in the coming weeks.
But Charles Ronco, a spokesman for the Prince William Education Association, called the continued COVID-19 cases and quarantines in Prince William schools “alarming but not unexpected.”
The PWEA has called for all instruction to remain virtual until all staff have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Even with the best mitigation strategies, this virus is very effective at infecting people,” Ronco said. “We hope the school board will consider this data when making their judgments.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org