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Return to school, winter sports for Suffolk Public Schools still on hold

As COVID-19 case counts and health metrics denoting a surge continue in Suffolk, Western Tidewater and the Eastern Region, winter sports activities will continue to be suspended, Suffolk Public Schools has announced.

However, students in specialized programs will continue to go to school one day per week on Wednesdays, according to the announcement.

“Due to increasing COVID-19 rates, VHSL winter activities will continue to be suspended,” the announcement read on the SPS homepage.

It said the next review of health metrics will take place Dec. 28, and that elementary students would not return for face-to-face instruction Jan. 4. Also, secondary students will not return for in-person instruction Jan. 11.

Both dates had been targeted previously as dates those groups of students would return for in-person instruction twice per week, with the remaining days to be for virtual learning.

The announcement stated that the Suffolk School Board “will determine the return of students at a future date.”

The board’s next meeting is Jan. 14.

Whatever the metrics are, it is unlikely that students would return to school for in-person instruction before the start of the second semester in February.

At its Nov. 12 meeting, the board voted 6-1 to not have students return to school before Jan. 4. Following that vote, Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said he would propose that pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students return Jan. 4 and students in grades 6 through 12 return Jan. 11, but that any return to school would still be predicated on a lowered case count in the city and the Eastern Region.

Earlier this month at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting, Gordon asked for emergency authorization that would have given him the ability to decide when to restart school. Despite noting that any decision would not be made without a majority of the board’s support, it voted 6-1 against the recommendation.

Gordon has reiterated multiple times that he would not recommend students going back to school in person if the health metrics on its dashboard did not allow for it.

“We have said since July that we will always make our decisions based on the health metrics,” Gordon said at the Dec. 10 meeting. “The health metrics right now clearly show that we should stay and remain in the virtual learning environment.”

The seven-day percent positivity rate in Suffolk is 13.3% as of Dec. 21, with a seven-day average of 46.2 cases per 100,000 people. The city’s seven-day positivity rate is up from 9.8% Dec. 7 and 10.9% Dec. 11.

In the Eastern Region, made up of localities in South Hampton Roads and the Peninsula, the seven-day positivity rate is 12.9% and a 7-day average of 46.7 cases per 100,000 people. All of those metrics are in the red category, denoting the most severe.

With health metrics for both the Eastern Region and the city at the most severe, Gordon told the board that because of that, it would need to take “a hard look” at reducing the number of hours staff is in schools and cutting back on the number of days specialized program students are in schools. At the time, he said he and division staff were looking at Dec. 21 as the day it would decide whether to keep the Jan. 4 and Jan. 11 return dates, and have staff return to buildings five days per week.

“These are the steps that the data and science are basically telling us to do,” Gordon said. “And this has been what we have recommended the entire time since the month of July. Nothing has changed there.”

In the Western Tidewater Health District — made up of Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County — the seven-day positivity rate is 12.8%, higher than the state’s positivity rate of 11.4% as of Dec. 21.

The school division reported 14 positive COVID-19 cases for the week of Dec. 14 through Dec. 20 and 63 overall since Sept. 7, though the division notes that one case does not equal one individual, as the total number of cases may include a single person who was in multiple locations. The division reports cases for both PCR and rapid test results.

The cases last week included two each in the division’s transportation department, King’s Fork High School and Lakeland High School, along with single cases at Creekside, Elephant’s Fork, Kilby Shores, Mack Benn Jr., Nansemond Parkway and Oakland elementary schools, John Yeates Middle School and Nansemond River High School.

As of Dec. 18, 23 school divisions and 40 high schools overall have opted not to participate in winter sports, according to the Virginia High School League. Two Western Tidewater school divisions — Southampton County and Surry County — are among those not participating in athletics this winter.

The VHSL’s winter sports season began with practices Dec. 7, and games were allowed to start Dec. 21. They must finish by Feb. 20.