Virginia’s school divisions will soon have access to informational “dashboards” of local pandemic metrics to help guide decisions about when it’s safe for students to return for in-person instruction, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said Wednesday.
Qarni, a resident of Prince William County and a former teacher at Beville Middle School, spoke about the new dashboards, which are still under development, during a July 22 return-to-school forum sponsored by the Prince William County Committee of 100.
Qarni and Prince William Health Department Director Dr. Alison Ansher said the state’s departments of health and education have been collaborating on the tool, which is envisioned to incorporate several health metrics and offer stoplight-like ratings of green, yellow and red based on local data.
The dashboard is hoped to synthesize local pandemic information in an easy-to-understand format, Qarni said.
Metrics shaded in red would be signal that school divisions should remain in all-virtual instruction. Yellow metrics, meanwhile, could be a signal that a “hybrid” model – a mix of virtual and in-person instruction – could be considered, while metrics colored in green could signal that in-person instruction is appropriate for all students, Qarni said.
“That’s what we’re looking to create, and it doesn’t really exist anywhere yet,” he added.
Ansher said the dashboard will likely include eight to 10 local metrics, including COVID-19 case numbers as well as the health district's percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 tests, hospitalizations and the number of local emergency room visits for “COVID-19-like illnesses,” to name a few.
Ansher said the dashboard could “be used for discussion” when making decisions about local schools and should be taken into consideration along with other factors, such as students’ educational needs.
“It will help guide the discussion by showing whether there are more red flags, versus some yellow flags and some green flags,” Ansher said. “Again, it will help guide the discussion with educators about where we need to go. I don’t think there’s going to be any perfect way to do it.”
When asked why the state isn't already sharing such information to better inform decisions about starting the school year, Qarni said state officials only recently came up with the idea.
Qarni said Virginia’s public schools were initially given reopening guidance in accordance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s reopening phases, which allow for different levels of in-school instruction under each phase.
In Phase 3, which the commonwealth entered July 1, schools are permitted to open for in-person instruction as long as they devise plans that adhere to the state’s guidelines, which include maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet inside school buildings or 3 feet if both teachers and students wear face-coverings.
For most schools, following the guidelines became a “capacity issue,” Qarni said, or a matter of figuring out whether schools have enough classroom space to maintain social distancing.
Virginia’s smaller, more rural school divisions are proving to have the advantage of both lower COVID-19 case numbers, indicating less “community spread” of the virus, as well as less crowded schools. Those conditions make it easier for rural districts to offer in-person instruction while adhering to the state’s social distancing guidelines, Qarni said.
Conversely, larger school divisions in more populous areas of the state are facing more challenges in that they have both higher numbers of COVID-19 cases as well as more crowded schools.
Given the differing conditions across the state – as well as the fluid nature of the pandemic -- officials thought a dashboard of local data would be useful for school division leaders trying to make decisions for students and staff, Qarni said.
Qarni noted that the state’s larger school divisions, including Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun, have all decided to begin the school year mostly online while allowing certain special education students and English learners to attend school for in-person instruction.
Qarni also noted that the shift to start the school year mostly online is a result of “anxiety” about upticks in COVID-19 cases in some parts of the state.
“That’s why that shift occurred,” he said. “That’s why, as a state, we’re talking about how can we supply more information, more metrics.”
Ansher noted that school divisions in Northern Virginia will need to keep an eye on regional metrics, including those in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, since many people who live in Prince William County work and regularly travel throughout the region.
When schools reopen for in-person instruction, she added, each eventual COVID-19 case detected among students or teachers will have to be individually investigated to determine whether the cases are the result of spreading at school or elsewhere in the community.
Qarni said he empathizes with parents who need to work and have their children in school. He also said he fully agrees that virtual instruction “is not the best way to educate children.”
“Hopefully, people will come to their senses and wear face coverings and maintain social distancing and cases will come down,” Qarni said. “But if that doesn’t happen, and we continue to see a resurgence, we have to be ready to continue to go 100 percent virtual.”
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