RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia school districts still have some power to halt in-person learning but only temporarily when transmission is high.
The Virginia Department of Health is currently exploring how to further define what that looks like to aid in decision-making, according to one top official.
A new state law limits how school districts can respond to COVID-19 outbreaks in K-12 schools. That law is being put to the test as the delta variant is driving up demand for virtual academies that some districts have not been able to accommodate. State data shows there were 49 outbreaks in K-12 settings between Aug. 29 and Sept. 11.
Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring school boards to offer full-time, in person-instruction for the 2021-2022 school year while following CDC guidance to the maximum extent possible.
Lawmakers left some flexibility for districts to resume virtual or hybrid learning in limited circumstances. The legislation emphasizes this should be “only for as long as it is necessary to address and ameliorate the level of transmission of COVID-19 in the school building.”
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), who is also a teacher, said schools who don’t follow the law risk losing state funding. So far, he thinks it’s working as intended.
“The goal was to tailor a bill that gets schools to be open but puts public health guardrails on them,” VanValkenburg said. “The idea is to keep as many kids in the classroom safely for as long as possible”
The law directs school boards to make decisions about the temporary return to remote learning after collaborating with their local health department.
It says in-person learning should only be halted–for a specific at-risk group or a whole building–if transmission within the school is at a high level as defined by Virginia Department of Health guidance. This is distinct from transmission levels in the broader community.
“Although other planning decisions should be informed by community levels of transmission, the law is referring to what is happening within a school,” said Dr. Laurie Forlano, Virginia’s Deputy Commissioner for Population Health.
State guidance outlines specific metrics for the percent of positive tests and cases per population that define the severity of spread in a community.
Notably, that definition when it comes to schools leaves more room for interpretation.
The school guidelines say transmission is considered high if there have been several outbreaks in school within a short time period, the size of outbreaks is large or the scope of the outbreak is significant (e.g. multiple classrooms or grade levels are impacted).
It furthers that high transmission may also be signaled by above average student absenteeism or staff capacity problems that make continuing in-person learning difficult. The guidance says schools should seek input from staff, who are specifically authorized in the law to work remotely during a quarantine or isolation period.
Asked why there aren’t more specific metrics outlined for high transmission in schools, Dr. Forlano said, “We wanted to offer some flexibility in judgement in the original iteration of the guidance but we are hearing that there may need to be some more defined or precise measures. We don’t want to be so restrictive that we’re unnecessarily going too far one way so you have to be real careful when you set thresholds.”
The guidance also notes that schools should make every effort to tighten prevention strategies before resuming remote instruction. One section reads:
For example, if the level of impact to a school is worsening to medium or high, regardless of the level of community transmission, a school may need to implement strict 6 distancing from others, and temporarily restrict sports and extracurricular activities where distancing is not possible. If medium or high levels of transmission within a school continue, school officials may need to consider alternative forms of providing instruction temporarily, but decisions to move to virtual instruction should be reserved for circumstances where other disease prevention measures have not resulted in more favorable trends within a school.
Further, the guidance says that regular COVID testing programs may be a helpful tool in evaluating the level of transmission. Virginia is not expected to roll this out until October and the vast majority of districts have yet to formally opt in.