Schools keep eye on virus counts

While two neighboring school systems delayed a return to in-person learning after the holiday break, Louisa County Public Schools maintained its plans to welcome back students this week.

Meanwhile, across the state, school leaders wondered whether escalating coronavirus cases might compel state officials to require all schools to revert to at-home learning.

COVID-19 infections have risen rapidly in Louisa since early November, including 10 cases among school staff in the past month. Only one of those cases was transmitted within a school building; the rest were contracted elsewhere, with several reported over the holidays.

Despite concerns about conditions around the county, Superintendent Doug Straley reminded the Louisa County School Board on Tuesday night how successful the schools have been overall in keeping students and faculty safe.

“Our team really believed we could do it safely,” he said. “We said we could make it to Labor Day, then we said we could make it to October, then we made it to December. The effort they made to make this happen was heroic, and I’m proud of them.”

Straley noted that he continues to confer closely with Blue Ridge Health District officials, who support keeping the schools open.

“They feel very confident with where we are. That being said, we are closely monitoring the numbers,” he said.

Louisa County had recorded 1,018 COVID cases as of Jan. 6, with more than half of them reported since Nov. 11. The number of cases ranged from 15 to 20 in the weeks prior to that date, but since then the weekly total has risen steadily. During the seven-day period from Christmas Eve to Dec. 30, 100 new cases were recorded, and in the week that followed, there were 135 more.

The number of people from Louisa who have been hospitalized is now 61, and there have been 11 fatalities since the pandemic arrived here last spring.

Mindful of a likely surge of illnesses during the holiday break, Albemarle County’s public school system announced in December that its schools would switch to all-virtual instruction through Jan. 11. Orange County Public Schools decided on Monday to keep students at home through Jan. 15, and canceled athletic competitions. The number of coronavirus cases in Orange, which has a similar population to Louisa, passed the 1,000 mark last week.

“We’re not necessarily going to do what other districts are doing,” said school board member Stephen Harris (Cuckoo District). “We’re going to do it the Louisa way, trying to keep students in school as much as possible.”

Schools officials explained in mid-December how operations will look in the event that health conditions further deteriorate this winter and remote learning is necessary for all students.

If that were to happen, students who have poor internet service at home will be offered transportation to ensure they can download assignments from their teachers and participate in live online lessons via Zoom or Google Meet.

“It’s going to be much different from last March through May,” Straley said in a video posted on the schools’ website, referring to the period when the schools were closed and students received paper assignments by mail.

Almost a third of the student body shifted to entirely remote learning at the beginning of the school year. Those students were expected to have access to high-speed internet to download their work. But the majority of students signed up for blended learning and attend school in person two days a week. Those students download assignments onto their laptop computers at school for completion on the three other days of the week.

In case the schools shift to all-remote learning, transportation would be available to take students to Wireless on Wheels locations, the solar-powered internet hotspots the schools set up earlier this year. Students might also be driven to one of the six school parking lots, where WiFi is available.

Straley listed criteria the schools will use to determine whether health conditions warrant a move to all-remote education. They include “a situation in which COVID-19 is spreading and our mitigation techniques are not enough to prevent transmission.”

A decision may also be made if a significant number of school staff are forced to isolate or quarantine because they tested positive for the illness or were exposed to it, and the schools don’t have enough substitute teachers available. It’s also possible the schools could be forced to shift to remote learning as a result of orders made by the state or federal governments, as was the case last spring.

“We currently have no plans to transition to a fully remote learning model,” Straley emphasized.

Last updated on Jan. 7 at 10:02 a.m.

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