The quick rise in COVID-19 cases that forced Bennett Elementary School in Manassas to go virtual this week is an “outbreak,” although it has yet to be officially declared as such, and is likely the result of both in-school and community spread of the virus, officials told parents during a special webinar Monday night.
In-person instruction at Bennett Elementary, a Prince William County school of about 750 students near the fairgrounds, has been paused for at least one week to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus and to allow the school to better assess the extent of the outbreak, Prince William Health District Director Dr. Alison Ansher and school division officials told parents.
Teachers began instructing students virtually today, Tuesday, Oct. 12, and will continue until officials determine it is safe for in-person classes to resume.
“We do feel like that will give us enough time for any developing cases to be recognized and identified, and to really evaluate the health in the building,” said Denise Huebner, Prince William County schools associate superintendent for student services and special education and the school division’s pandemic team lead.
Huebner characterized the pause as a “proactive intervention.” She told parents the school division hoped to allow Bennett students to return to in-person classes on Monday, Oct. 18.
The Prince William Health District recommended the pause in in-person instruction after reviewing the health data. The school had 39 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases as of Friday, Oct. 8, and more than 200 students in quarantine due to being close contacts, Superintendent LaTanya McDade said in an Oct. 8 letter to the school community.
The school division works collaboratively with the health district to monitor health data on a daily basis, Huebner said.
“This situation was one that came to our attention as part of our surveillance process, due to how rapidly the rise in the numbers of cases occurred,” she explained.
“We all value our student's education and in-person learning but the safety and wellbeing of our students have to take our first priority,” Huebner added.
The school division and the health district will continue monitoring the situation at Bennett over the next week. If COVID-19 cases or probable cases continue to rise, additional strategies, such as a longer pause in in-person instruction, would be communicated to parents and caregivers as soon as possible, Huebner said.
“The Virginia Department of Education does recognize that at times you may need to pause learning -- or even sometimes a class, a grade level, and in this instance an entire school building -- but the intention is always to return as quickly as possible to in-person instruction,” Huebner said.
“Our hope is that by having this pause, it’ll separate kids from one another and kids from the staff and allow us to sort of cool down,” Ansher explained.
More than 1,000 cases reported in local schools since school year began
Although Prince William schools have reported well over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 since the school year began, no other schools have experienced a rapid rise in cases – and level of school-related spread – that would prompt a pause in in-person instruction, officials said.
When reviewing the COVID-19 cases at Bennett Elementary, the health district was able to identify contacts within the school for some cases, but not in others, which could point to a combination of in-school and community exposure, Ansher said.
Ansher encouraged families to continue to be vigilant in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVD-19 to children as a means to keep students in class. She noted that Prince William County, like much of Virginia, continues to show high levels of community transmission, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anything above 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period is considered high community transmission. Prince William County had 166 cases per 100,000 residents as of Oct. 2, the most recent date for which data is available.
“Because we are in a high transmission community, it's important that not only do we practice good mitigation strategies in a school environment, but also outside the school environment,” Ansher said.
Ansher said she recognizes how difficult the pandemic has been for children in particular, but stressed the importance of adults getting vaccinated to protect children under 12 – who are still too young to be vaccinated -- and continuing to mask both in and out of school to prevent community transmission of COVID-19.
Ansher noted that the Delta variant “is much more transmissible, [and] more likely to cause more severe infections and hospitalizations.”
She encouraged families to carefully consider their behaviors and activities outside school to prevent further community spread and allow in-person learning to continue. All Prince William County schools require all students and adults to wear masks in school buildings at all times, except when eating meals.
“I know it's challenging ... but it's really important, particularly in this group that cannot be vaccinated and so are very vulnerable to becoming infected with COVID-19,” Ansher said.
An outbreak of COVID-19 is defined by the Virginia Department of Health as two or more laboratory-confirmed cases that are linked to a common exposure in the same setting. To be considered “epidemiologically linked,” the cases must occur within 14 days and must involve people who were not considered close contacts outside school, according to the VDH definition of an outbreak.
Prince William County schools so far has only three official outbreaks – at Potomac High School and Yorkshire and Sudley elementary schools, according to the VDH, which posts outbreaks weekly on its website.
But even before those outbreaks were made public, Prince William Health District COVID-19 epidemiologist Sean Morris said “multiple” possible outbreaks were occurring in local schools, that had not yet been reported by the VDH.
“There is some discrepancy going on with the [VDH] central office dashboard, and we are working with the central office to figure out why [the Bennett Elementary School outbreak] hasn't been posted yet,” Morris told parents during the webinar.
“They have approved it as an outbreak. It is an outbreak. But we're not quite sure why there is a data issue, and it just hasn’t been posted yet. We've been working with central office for about a week and half on it and we will continue working on it,” Morris said.
Reach Cher Muzyk at email@example.com