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Return to school plan approved

For the 98% of Suffolk Public Schools students who will return to in-person learning in September, they’ll have to navigate COVID-19 as the pandemic is reaching another peak with a more contagious Delta variant.

They, along with the school division’s teachers and staff, will navigate it while wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status, and distancing wherever possible.

Gov. Ralph Northam told school divisions it must abide by legislation that calls for following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for masking, and state health commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver issued a public health order mandating masking in K-12 schools throughout the state. Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said people can seek a medical or religious exemption.

“You’ve got to have some proof,” Gordon said.

Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice outlined the division’s return to school plan, which the School Board approved by a 6-1 vote at its Aug. 12 meeting, with Sherri Story voting no. Rice said that while current COVID-19 metrics are concerning, the division is committed to having students in school by the legislatively mandated five days per week.

“The caveat here is to make sure that we have layered mitigation strategies in place,” Rice said.

Division officials also hope that those eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine will avail themselves of that, too. Currently, that is not a mandate, though they are exploring the possibility of weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated staff, similar to what unvaccinated city employees will have to do beginning Oct. 1.

Gordon said he has spoken with City Manager Al Moor about having at least some of the school division’s employees be a part of the city’s testing program, but nothing has been finalized.

“We’re already working with one of our local partners for some of our own testing,” Gordon said. “However, we’re not sure what the staff is going to be like, so that’s why I’m going to leave that option open for our staff. If we do have to go that route, they can get vaccinated with our partners as well as potentially getting tested by the city itself.”

The state departments of health and education have both recommended school divisions conduct their own COVID-19 testing in schools for unvaccinated students and staff. The division’s plans for a third party to conduct the testing would also cover testing materials, permission and consent forms and get a 24-hour turnaround on test results “so that we can make quick decisions to help us with mitigation,” Rice said.

Rice said in looking at the number of new cases per 100,000 people every seven days in Suffolk, a metric the state department of health has begun using, it shows the city at 179.14 cases as of Aug. 8, and 14.1% 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She noted the increases in COVID-19 in Suffolk since late June, when there were just 0.6 cases per 100,000 people and a 7-day positivity rate of less than 1%.

“It’s clear that the numbers are not good at this time,” Rice said.

Among school-age city residents, just 10.2% (2,245) have been fully vaccinated as of Aug. 8. The total represents about 30% of city residents ages 12 to 17. COVID-19 vaccines are not yet available to people under 12, though state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said in a recent briefing that a vaccine could be ready for that age group by next month.

Among all city residents, 52.4% of adults, and 42.3% overall, have been fully vaccinated as of Aug. 13.

Rice said the division has to consider the impact of COVID-19 on the division’s schools — how it affects student and staff absenteeism and whether it has staffing concerns because they have to quarantine due to exposure to or a positive case of COVID-19.

“As we maneuver through this transmission and those metrics, and looking at the vaccination rates,” Rice said, “we have to also consider, how is this impacting our face-to-face learning?

She said the division would shift to the Canvas platform it used during the previous school year in case the division needs to quickly pivot into temporary virtual learning, something it hopes not to do. Given the current high transmission of COVID-19, she said those plans have to be ready.

The division is also looking at capacity needs at the schools, continuing to call for distancing of at least three feet as much as possible.

“We already know that face-to-face learning is the best learning,” Rice said. “That’s what our children need, and we need them in there five days a week, but we have to do it safely. We also know that getting them back into schools is going to help them socially and emotionally, and even with some mental health concerns that we may be able to address.”

Gordon said any possible return to either hybrid or virtual learning for school divisions would be dependent upon the General Assembly.

Others, such as those on Individualized Learning Plans or students at the College and Career Academy at Pruden, need more hands-on learning to be successful in their respective programs.

Gordon said that for those who teach in smaller classrooms, he’s asked principals to create some additional class sections to reduce class sizes, and some teachers have already volunteered to do that.

She said the mitigation plans for the division are the same ones it followed for students in summer school and when some students returned to school in the spring.

The division urges everyone who’s eligible — students, staff and parents — to get a COVID-19 vaccination, and will require everyone inside schools to properly wear masks — fitting well and covering the nose and mouth.

It will also continue with ventilation, as each school has bipolar ionization in all of its buildings, along with proper and frequent handwashing for at least 20 seconds at a time. The division will also encourage anyone with COVID-19-like symptoms to stay home.

Rice said the division’s nursing and human resources staffs have continued with contact tracing over the summer. Along with everyone in schools, including visitors, required to wear a mask inside schools, they will also have to wear masks on school buses per federal guidelines.

The division will not require masks for PE classes. For breakfast and lunch in schools, cafeterias will be used on a rotational basis, and principals are creating schedules that will have some groups of students also eating in classrooms. Water fountains will also be used as bottle-filling stations only. The division’s updated COVID-19 resource guide is expected to be public within the next week.

Visitors to schools will be limited to the lobby or front office areas and not allowed further inside a school building.

As for sports, Gordon said the intent is to play a full Virginia High School League schedule for fall sports, and said COVID-19 testing in the division would likely focus on athletes because they have closer contact with others for a longer period of time.

“We’re basically playing that by ear,” Gordon said. “I don’t want to have to cancel games, but I will move things if we have to quarantine, because if you get a whole, just one person on a team, like on a football team, that could be a quarantine of up to 50 people, unless they’re vaccinated and it really shortens that quarantine time down, and it really also depends on if you’re having symptoms, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

“We’ve had a couple of positive cases, but it really hasn’t traced back to the team, but it’s been people on the teams that may have been getting some things out in the community. … Our coaches have done a good job, and our new supervisor of athletics and activities (Richard Fortune) has been on top of it.”

Gordon said in order for teams to keep their normal seasons, “we have to follow these mitigation strategies.”

For students who will be in virtual learning, the division has designated blocks in a teacher’s schedule to teach virtually. Unlike last spring’s hybrid schedules in which teachers were teaching both in-person and virtual students simultaneously, that will not be the case this year.

It had 507 students express interest in virtual learning this year, and 261 had applied as of Aug. 2. Gordon said others who want to switch to virtual learning would be put on a wait-list, though it would likely be easier to add elementary-age students because they would be with just one teacher. There will be one elementary teacher per grade level, and for middle and high school, there would be a combination of division teachers, along with Virtual Virginia, Edgenuity and Proximity Learning programs used.

For virtual learning, there are 78 elementary students, 80 in middle school and 103 for high school. Virtual Virginia classes start Aug. 24, while in-person learning begins Sept. 7.