Board votes to allow in-person learning in March

Published 11:52 pm Thursday, February 11, 2021

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The Suffolk School Board voted 4-2 Thursday to allow students to return to school in March.

The plan would allow students in specialized programs to return to school four days per week beginning March 15, and on that same date, allow pre-K through fifth-grade students to return to school twice per week. Students in grades 6 through 12 would return to school twice per week March 22.

Vice Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum, along with Lorita Mayo, Karen Jenkins and Sherri Story voted yes. Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck and Tyron Riddick voted no. Story made the motion, which she had amended to add additional days for the students in specialized programs.

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The vote to return more students to class comes as Gov. Ralph Northam recently called on school divisions to have a plan to return students to in-person learning by March 15.

It also followed a discussion on the city’s COVID-19 health metrics, in which Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice said it would be adjusting the metrics the division uses to guide its in-person learning plans. The division has already been using metrics for the seven-day positivity rate and cases per 100,000 people for both the city and Eastern Region.

In consulting with the Western Tidewater Health District, Rice said the division will also factor in the number of cases in the health district in two age groups — children from birth to age 9 and those ages 10 to 19.

City children ages 4 to 10 have a seven-day positivity rate of about 12%, and those 10 to 19 have a seven-day positivity rate of about 15% as of Feb. 4, according to data provided by the health district to the school division. Rice said she did not receive data from the health department on how children had tested positive for COVID-19.

Across the health district, 395 children from ages birth to 9 have tested positive for COVID-19 while another 926 children ages 10 to 19 have tested positive.

Rice said guiding principles the division has received from the Virginia Department of Health and the state department of education said it should support in-person learning, prioritize younger learners, put education first, focus on preventing transmission, consider community needs and be flexible and innovative.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said that even with schools opening, students and parents should not expect that things will be normal.

“It’s not going to look like what you’re used to,” Gordon said.

Rice, during her presentation, noted some of the mitigation strategies as part of its health plan from last July that included proper mask-wearing at all times, physical distancing and marking buildings so people know how far apart they are in hallways, classes and on buses, and signage throughout the buildings to remind people to wash hands frequently. Buses will also be disinfected after every run, Gordon said.

Hand sanitizing stations have also been installed in schools, and cleaning and disinfecting are and will be going on throughout the day and when schools are closed. Rice said the division has a good contact tracing program for staff and students coordinated through school nurses and the Human Resources department — run in conjunction with the Western Tidewater Health District.

There will also be a parent acknowledgment form to be sent out that will ask parents to indicate that they will screen their children for a fever or any symptoms.

Currently, in both the Eastern Region and in the city, the seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 is 16%, while the cases per 100,000 in the region stands at 46.2, and 58.3 in the city.

Rice also noted that while the division has had positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff, there have been no outbreaks. From Feb. 1 to Feb. 7, the division reported 15 positive COVID-19 cases in nine schools and one department — two cases each at Florence Bowser Elementary School, Nansemond River High School and in the Transportation Department — but it notes that one case does not equal one individual and can include one person who tested positive who was in multiple locations.