During a recent meeting of the Prince William County School Board, Dr. Alison Ansher, director of the Prince William Health District, presented the local “pandemic metrics dashboard” publicly for the first time.
The dashboard is a big deal because it’s the first tool developed by the Virginia Department of Health that qualifies pandemic metrics for each local health district with a stoplight-like, color-coded ratings of red, yellow or green.
According to Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, who explained the intent of the tool during a Committee of 100 meeting in July, the colors designate the severity of the pandemic metrics and indicate whether they are too high (red) to return to school safely; or advise caution (yellow); or are low enough for students to safely return to school as normal (green).
The VDH developed the tool to help Virginia school districts make better more informed decisions based on level of “community spread” of the virus.
At the moment, the dashboards are not public, but we are told the VDH is working on that.
With all the angst about what to do about school and whether it’s safe for any students and teachers to learn in-person, it would seem the dashboards should be made public sooner rather than later. If individual school boards – the members of which are generally not medical professionals – must decide whether conditions are safe enough for schools to reopen, it would seem that more information is better than less.
During the school board meeting, Dr. Ansher presented an Aug. 22 version of the local dashboard that was a mix of reds and yellows. The district, which includes the county, Manassas and Manassas Park, was squarely in the red when it came to the rate of cases per 100,000 residents. Prince William scored 14.7 on that measure. Any number above 10 is in the red.
Also placing us in the red are the local rates of emergency room visits. Ours is 9 per 100,000, while anything above 6 is red. Ditto for our rate of patients hospitalized in intensive care units for COVID-19. Prince William’s rate is 4.2 per 100,000 residents. Anything above 3.5 is red.
The news was slightly better, but not all that reassuring, for the other three metrics: percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 tests, the rate of COVID-19 outbreaks and the rate of health care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19. The Prince William Health District was squarely in the yellow on those measures.
Striking a positive note, Ansher emphasized that many of the numbers in the county seem to be on a downward trend. She also reassured board members that the numbers should be taken into consideration along with other factors about which school division officials likely have more expertise, such as when the educational needs of certain students make it worth taking the risks – and making the effort – to bring students into schools for in-person instruction.
Our school board is in the middle of finalizing these decisions this week. Already, the board has wisely decided that most students and teachers should learn virtually from home for at least the first quarter. Given the dashboard numbers, which were not available when the board made that decision back in July, the school board definitely made the right call.
Now the board is hearing objections from teachers about its plan to bring a relatively small number of special education students -- about 1,600 of 12,000 who qualify for such services -- into schools along with their teachers.
Many teachers have told us they don’t feel safe teaching in person. Given the mix of reds and yellows on the pandemic dashboard, their reluctance seems reasonable.
Perhaps the school board would be wise to keep an eye on the numbers and delay any move to return students and teachers to classrooms until the numbers are better -- or at least out of the red.