Surging coronavirus cases are complicating decisions on how to reopen schools in Hampton Roads

At the end of June, with many of the state’s key coronavirus metrics trending in a positive direction, it appeared as if Hampton Roads had escaped the worst of the pandemic. And with those promising signs came the hope that schools could reopen this fall — as close to normally as possible.

Many local cities had been reporting just a handful of new cases each day and much of the region was well below the state’s goal of less than 10% of tests coming back positive. There was optimism from educators, experts and parents that schools could offer students at least some in-person instruction.

But over the past three weeks, there has been nothing but bad news in the region’s rising case numbers, positive test rates and hospitalizations, particularly among younger age groups. The recent trends are complicating school boards’ options as they face a deadline to finalize their fall plans.

“The schools’ decision has been made tremendously more difficult because of what’s happening in our community,” said Nancy Welch, the director of the Chesapeake Health Department.

She said no matter what metrics are evaluated, local health officials are extremely concerned.

As of Thursday, Hampton Roads is failing to meet the goals — established by epidemiologists — for what percentage of tests should come back positive, an indication that the community spread of the illness is not under control. None of the region’s health districts are below the World Health Organization’s recommended rate of 5% positive tests, a threshold governments use when deciding on whether to reopen businesses and schools.

Even at the state’s more generous goal of 10%, only one health district in Hampton Roads meets that metric: the Peninsula, at 8.7%.

Chesapeake was at 14.5% on Thursday, while Portsmouth and Virginia Beach were at 12.1% and 11.4%, respectively. Hampton was up to 11.4%. Norfolk’s rate was more than triple the 5% threshold, at 17.1%. And each city has been trending in the wrong direction, souring experts and key stakeholders as school systems prepare to finalize their plans.

From a public health perspective, Anna Jeng, a professor at the School of Community and Environmental Health at Old Dominion University, said she would recommend teaching only online rather than holding any in-person classes.

“We can’t contain (the coronavirus),” she said. “It continues to increase.”

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Northam stressed during a Tuesday press conference that although the state department of education sent out guidance on how best to reopen schools, the final decision will be in the hands of local school boards.

Some of the state’s largest school systems have already opted to start this fall with online learning as the country’s coronavirus cases have surged.

The Richmond School Board voted this week for only virtual learning. Arlington Public Schools recently reversed course, too, opting to start the year with remote learning.

But in Hampton Roads, where the school year starts after Labor Day, most districts are still waiting to make their final decision. Only Chesapeake has announced a plan, with the school board saying last week that families could choose between in-person or virtual instruction. But it still depends on how much on-campus instruction will be permitted by health guidelines.

It can be a balancing act, between leaving enough time for administrators to plan for this fall and not making a decision too soon, as the COVID-19 situation in Hampton Roads can shift quickly.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make one decision and say ‘That’s it, sorry folks,’” Welch said. “This is a moving process. It changes every day.”

The decision from schools is tied to the conditions locally, she said. And as it stands now, the region is seeing a dramatic increase in cases and hospitalizations from a month ago. Norfolk and Virginia Beach are reporting the most new cases each day in the state, above even Fairfax County, home to some 1.1 million people. Chesapeake and Newport News are seeing the fourth and sixth most new cases, respectively.

While some residents in the region have expressed interest in setting a hard-and-fast threshold for when schools could offer in-person classes — like a locality’s rate of positive tests — health officials said it’s important to take a holistic approach. School systems should look at which way trends are moving rather than at a specific number.

Aaron Spence, the superintendent of Virginia Beach public schools, hosted a panel with local health officials and physicians this week to provide guidance on how best to plan for this fall. The 11-person group, which included the Virginia Beach Health District Director Dr. Demetria Lindsay, will work with the division in the coming months, said Sondra Woodward, a school spokesperson, in a statement.

There was a “focus on science-based and data-driven information that will significantly influence the division’s decision on how the school year will start in September,” Woodward said.

While local educators and administrators have stressed that their preference is to be with their students, the chance for a full return-to-near-normal plan this fall has dwindled as the local health conditions have deteriorated.

The pessimism was clear at the Norfolk School Board meeting Tuesday when board members said they think the fall semester should start virtually for all students, the first school board in Hampton Roads to push for all remote teaching.

“With the limited capacity of this country, this state and our locality to appropriately handle this public health crisis — which seems to be worsening every day — I’m at a point right now where I would like to encourage and recommend that we do go fully virtual come the fall,” said board member Tanya Bhasin.

The board plans to vote next week.

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As each school district nears a decision, there are are a number of logistical problems to iron out, including scheduling, busing, changing classes and providing meals, to name a few. Rachel White, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University’s College of Education and Professional Studies, said there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening schools. Different communities will have varying needs and capacities.

Some might have more than enough space to be socially distant for in-person classes but have limited technology available among the population they teach. Others might not have the ability to get everyone back inside schools for five days a week but have more capacity online.

Even down to the grade level, whether to teach online or in-person depends on the student’s circumstances. Younger students, those with disabilities and those learning English need face-to-face instruction more than older students.

Welch said it’s a tough balancing act, trying to decide between education, equity, economic activity and safety. Even amid a pandemic, Welch said she’s “glad (she’s) in public health and not the education system right now.”

And even the best-laid plans might have to change on a dime, she said.

“It’s going to be a really interesting tightrope to walk,” White said. “Within a day’s notice, you might have to figure out what’s going to happen with your first-grader now that they’re going to be home for two weeks.”

Virginia Beach’s school division, which held some in-person summer programs, has already seen at least two positive COVID-19 cases among staff, at Centerville Elementary School and Cox High School, according to letters to parents. At educational facilities in Virginia, the state says there have been 20 outbreaks — meaning two or more positive cases — but the health department doesn’t detail whether those outbreaks have been in daycares, K-12 schools or colleges.

Virginia Beach officials said they believe the risk of transmission in both cases was low and continued holding classes.

But those cases — coupled with the local health situation and possibility of returning for in-person classes this fall — has heightened the worries of many teachers.

“I did not sign up to risk my life on a daily basis for my job,” said elementary school teacher Kaitlin Jensen during a town hall meeting hosted Thursday by the Virginia Beach Education Association.

That union, which represents some 1,400 teachers, said on Thursday that it “cannot support the opening of schools to face-to-face instruction” due to rising coronavirus cases in the region.

In Virginia Beach, school board member Dan Edwards said the decision has become much tougher in the past few weeks, with three options — all-remote instruction, a full reopening of schools or a hybrid of those options where students would come in for two days a week while following strict social distancing precautions — still on the table.

“I have no idea what we’re going to do,” he said.

Staff writer Sara Gregory contributed reporting.

Peter Coutu, 757-222-5124, peter.coutu@pilotonline.com

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