RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — While Virginia’s top health officials look to emerge from the pandemic with high vaccine rates, the commonwealth’s youngest population remains ineligible–a tightrope schools must walk gingerly.
Students are spending more time back in the classroom or at their regular activities, making them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. As children venture outside of the home far more than during the last academic year, parents are asking when their children can get a vaccine, and what is grounds for quarantining their child.
But it’s not just parents rushing to mitigate the spread of the virus among children, local school districts maintain they are doing what they can.
Virginia’s K-12 schools require students and staff to wear face masks while inside buildings. In some Virginia classrooms, students also sit behind plexiglass around desks or are spread out around a room.
The FDA has only approved the Pfizer shot for kids age 12 and older. Monday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he expects children under the age of 12 will likely not be eligible for vaccines until the end of October or early November.
“We need you to be patient for a bit longer,” Northam said of awaiting parents seeking vaccines for children.
The Virginia Department of Health has listed dozens of outbreaks in schools statewide since students returned to class this fall. School outbreaks began increasing in August, with eight instances the first week of the month. The final week in August reportedly saw 30 school outbreaks with 29 more reported in the first full week of September.
In the last 13 weeks, the central health region has had 70 outbreaks in K-12 schools, according to state data.
Petersburg City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Maria Pitre-Martin answered several questions from parents Monday night during an online forum; responding to multiple inquiries about protocol for student to quarantine if they were near a symptomatic classmate. Pitre-Martin explained that only close contacts will be asked to quarantine–seats directly next to the symptomatic or COVID-19-positive student.
“If he [a student] becomes a close contact, he may have to quarantine again and this becomes a very unfortunate process,” Petrie-Martin said.
The CDC defines a close contact as someone who has been within six-feet of a person potentially positive for COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. There are some exceptions made for students, if both children were only within three to six feet of each other, and were wearing a mask during their entire exposure. In this case, they will not be considered close contacts.
However, this does not rule out all possible exposures. For instance, the CDC suggests that the quarantine exception not be applied to school bus exposure unless there is documented proof that students were in their assigned seats and masked the entire time. In other situations, social distancing may not always be possible.
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said Monday that it is unfortunate some students will have to miss class due to virus exposures.
“Which is disruptive to learning after 18 months of already disruptive learning, and the very best way we can limit quarantine is to increase vaccination,” he said.
Six percent of Virginia’s reported COVID-19 cases have been in children ages nine and under. Twelve percent of positive cases are among young people between ages 10 and 19.
As for Virginia’s vaccinated population, 266,974 kids ages 12-15, about 63% of the age group, have gotten their vaccine. Older teens, ages 16 to 17, have reached a slightly higher vaccination rate with 69% or 144,801 total kids getting their COVID-19 vaccine.