BRISTOL, Va. — Bristol, Virginia students and teachers return to classrooms Monday for the first time in nearly a month, as the division continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
City students were last in classrooms Dec. 9 and online classes resumed Jan. 12. School officials added bookend weeks of virtual classes around the traditional Christmas break to allow as many teachers and staff as possible to receive the first round of COVID vaccinations, following months with few actual cases in classrooms.
“Our parents and our students are anxious to get back. Our staff was very dedicated to providing in-person instruction before, but it’s even more so now they’ve gotten that first vaccine. It’s like a sense of relief that I sense from folks working directly with children,” Superintendent Keith Perrigan said.
“We are so excited to get our kids back in the building on Jan. 25. That is the start toward normalcy, whatever normalcy looks like in the future. What we’re doing right now is not natural for our families, and we’re ready to get back to learning the way it’s meant to be,” he said.
Schools have been cleaned extensively, and new air cleaning technology has been installed in all buildings but, otherwise, the routine of substantial mitigation efforts will be much the same as last semester, Perrigan said.
“There will be no changes. Right before Christmas break, we added 23 new mitigations that we only had about four days to implement. Those 23 and a good portion of our staff have been vaccinated, so we’ll continue to follow the plan that’s worked up to this point,” Perrigan said last week while inspecting Virginia High School.
From August through Jan. 21, the division reported 31 total student cases with none active and 32 positive staff cases with two currently listed as active.
City schools were among the first in the state to return to class last August with all schools open. Students attended classes four days per week with Friday reserved for online learning. The division’s plan included extensive steps to try and mitigate exposure to the virus, including daily temperature checks for everyone, modified breakfast and lunch procedures, mandatory mask-wearing for all students and staff, altered schedules, socially distanced classrooms, school buses and common spaces among dozens of changes.
The division has also filled a number of vacancies in its custodial department to provide additional help with cleaning.
The system reported just 29 COVID-19 cases among students during the first semester, compared to 14 cases of the virus during the recently completed Christmas break, Perrigan said.
“Our team put such a good plan together we were really over prepared. I think the lesson we’ve learned is when we follow our plan we protect students and staff from transmission and even from quarantine. We’ve been blessed — and this could all change tomorrow — but we’ve had zero examples of transmission in our schools since the beginning of the pandemic,” Perrigan said.
“Our philosophy has been about balancing risk. We knew some of the risk we were taking was there would be some transmission in our schools. We tried to develop a plan that would alleviate as much of that as possible. We had to quarantine around 50 people and, out of the people we quarantined because they had close contact, none of those folks contracted the virus,” he said.
School officials initially said anecdotally that children would be better off in schools with mitigations, and that has proven true, Perrigan said.
“We’ve been out of school for about a month now, and we have seen a large number of school-age children who’ve tested positive during that time. When we left school, about 28 of our kids had tested positive and, in the first couple weeks we were out of school, we had 11 school-age children test positive,” he said.
The Virginia Department of Health reported 73 new cases of the novel coronavirus in the city during the past 10 days — the amount of time the Centers for Disease Control says a person with a positive test is considered contagious. There have been 204 new cases citywide so far this month.
“Of the 30-some percent of our kids attending virtually, we saw a much larger percentages of them testing positive than in-person,” Perrigan said. “As of Jan. 4, there had been an increase of 14 school age children who tested positive since we moved to a fully virtual environment; a 3-week period. We only had 29 in-person learners test positive the entire first semester. Our mitigations provide a safer environment than many of our students have access to outside of school.”
About two-thirds of the division’s students attended classes in person last fall, with the balance participating online. Come Monday, Perrigan expects that will again be the case.
If more parents want to send their students to schools, it could create issues with the extensive social-distancing mitigations in classrooms, common areas and on school buses — which are running extra routes to maintain distance among passengers.
“In some areas, we have room and in some areas we don’t,” the superintendent said. As folks request to come back, we’re looking at the classrooms they’ll be in and — as long as it doesn’t cause us to go below 6 feet of social distancing — we’ll let them in. If it does cause us to go below that 6 feet, we’ll try to work out a very creative schedule where that person may only come back two days a week.”
That could change next month.
“By mid-February, after the vaccine has had time to fully develop in our staff, I would anticipate we’ll start looking at reducing the number of mitigations that we have. Not throwing them out the window, but reducing them so we can get more of our students in the buildings,” Perrigan said. “After Feb. 8, everyone that took it should be almost fully immune from COVID, and we look to expand our offerings after that.”
During the break, contractors for Energy Systems Group installed more than 330 Global Plasma Solutions needle-point bipolar ionization devices in the heating and cooling systems of the city’s four elementary schools, the middle and high schools. Paid for with about $450,000 in federal CARES Act funding, the devices are expected to be 99% effective in killing the novel coronavirus and many other airborne pathogens.
It included 115 units at Virginia High School, more than 80 at Virginia Middle and between 26 and 41 units at each of the city’s four elementary schools. Ten portable Aerus air scrubbers — made at that company’s Bristol, Virginia manufacturing plant — will be used in places where the ionization units couldn’t be installed.
And more technology is on the way, including additional video cameras.
“Since the Department of Health is not doing contact tracing anymore that responsibility falls on us. Having good digital cameras, in as many places as we can in our buildings, enables us to follow a student or a staff member — if they’ve had a positive case — just to verify we are able to identify all their contacts,” Perrigan said. “We have already used the cameras extensively — even when we were working with the health department — to track their travels throughout the building. It helps to make sure we notify those who had a close or even a low-risk contact.”
The division is also getting quotes and plans to acquire several air quality monitors, but those will be installed in the future.
State issues revised guidance
Last summer saw considerable debate across Virginia as educators, lawmakers and health officials wrangled with how best to safely educate students amid the pandemic. The state ultimately left that decision up to local school boards with large numbers opting for online classes or a combination of online and in-person learning.
On Jan. 14, the Virginia departments of education and health released revised guidance saying a division’s “capacity to successfully implement mitigation strategies and local community disease data should be factored into school operations plans.”
“As local school and health leaders evaluate and adjust instructional offerings in 2021, they must carefully balance the risks associated with operating during a pandemic and the long-term effects of students not attending school in person,” according to the statement. “Even when a school carefully plans and prepares, during a pandemic, cases of COVID-19 still may occur. It is not possible to eliminate all risk of disease in community settings, such as schools. Students and staff most at risk of serious complications from COVID-19 should continue to have remote learning and working options.”
Perrigan said that mirrors what Bristol experienced in its first semester.
“When we first opened, the state took a more cautious approach about bringing students in person. We’ve tried to balance risk for what made sense for Bristol,” he said. “Now there is enough data out there nationwide, and the data is pretty clear that schools are not areas of high transmission. I think the reason for that is because of the numerous mitigations school divisions have put into place to protect staff and students from the virus.”
The state’s newly revised guidance also addresses learning lost due to students being out of traditional classroom settings — both last spring and last fall as educators say virtual options create a disparity in learning and retention for many students.
“The risks of not opening schools need to be carefully considered and given proper weight. Long-term school closures as a mitigation strategy for COVID-19 transmission may cause inadvertent harm to children; for example, children who do not have in-person instruction may suffer learning loss with long-term effects, mental health issues, or a potential regression in social skills,” according to the statement.
About 35% of city students earned one or more failing grades on their most recent report cards, which were issued last Tuesday, Perrigan said. More than half of those students were in the remote learning environment, yet those students make up only 30% of the overall population.
“We’re extremely concerned. With this new round of CARES Act funding we’ll be receiving, part of that will be designated to purchasing tests we can use to determine if students are at, above or below grade level so we can identify students who are struggling,” Perrigan said. “Secondly, we are looking at completely revamping our summer school program. We’re looking at four different models.
“For those students who are doing virtual but not being successful, [we’re looking at] making that a requirement to make sure we engage them over the summer so, when we start next fall, we get them as close to grade-level as possible.”
The federal government waived standardized testing last spring, as most schools nationwide were closed from March through June. Perrigan said that is likely to occur again.
“We have a partial waiver on standardized testing,” he said. “I think we will see additional waivers extended with the change in administration at the federal level. Prior to the inauguration, we had not gotten a federal waiver, but I think the chances for that occurring now with a new administration in Washington are probably better.”
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