SPS dealing with increased COVID-19 cases, outbreaks

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The first week of school has seen a record number of COVID-19 cases for Suffolk Public Schools and two confirmed outbreaks.

There were 27 cases of COVID-19 at 13 of the division’s schools, including seven at Nansemond River High School, three each at Creekside Elementary School, Northern Shores Elementary School and John Yeates Middle School, two each at Hillpoint and Kilby Shores elementary schools, and one each at Elephant’s Fork, Nansemond Parkway and Florence Bowser elementary schools, along with Col. Fred Cherry Middle School and Lakeland High School.

One case does not equal one person, and could include one person who was at multiple locations. Cases are also reported for both PCR and rapid test results.

The Virginia Department of Health has confirmed outbreaks at King’s Fork and Nansemond River high schools, though because there are fewer than five cases associated with those outbreaks, it did not indicate the number of cases at each school.

The Virginia Department of Health defines an outbreak at a school if there are at least two confirmed COVID-19 cases in which people are linked to a common exposure to a sick person, setting, event and time period. Transmission must also take place at a school site or a school-sponsored event among students, staff or visitors to count as a school-related outbreak.

On the school division’s COVID-19 dashboard, it lists two cases at King’s Fork High School for the week of Aug. 16 through Aug. 22. The outbreak there was reported to the state health department Aug. 24. The school has had at least one case — and no more than three — each week from July 19 through Aug. 16, and reported one case for the week of Aug. 30 through Sept. 5.

Nansemond River reported three cases for the week of Aug. 23 through Aug. 29, and seven for the weeks of Aug. 30 through Sept. 5, and Sept. 6 through Sept. 12. The state department of health received the report of that school’s outbreak Sept. 1.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III, at the Sept. 9 School Board meeting, noted an outbreak within the Nansemond River football team, which had to cancel its Sept. 3 game with Great Bridge. The Virginian-Pilot reported that it was missing 17 players for its 23-0 loss to Western Branch due to either COVID-19 or injuries and had to bring up some junior varsity players to be able to play.

The 7-day positivity rate for COVID-19 in Suffolk is 14.4% with a high level of community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice told the board that for the division to close either a school or shift the entire division to virtual learning, it would look at COVID-19 transmissions at individual schools, student absenteeism and staff capacity. The latter wouldn’t just include teachers, but staff such as bus drivers, teacher assistants, secretaries, administrative staff and food services staff, among others.

Rice said if the division gets to the point where there is a high level of impact at schools, meaning if there are several outbreaks at a school within a short time period, having a large outbreak or having multiple classrooms or grade levels are impacted, then it would be time to discuss whether to shut down a classroom or a building.

Rice said there would have to be at least 20% of a school’s population out due to COVID-19 — a threshold it typically uses for flu season — to consider changes to a school’s operations, or that of the division. If a large number of staff is out due to COVID-19, it would then have to consider returning to virtual learning either for the school or division.

“All of this is in discussion with the local health department,” Rice said.

Gordon said there would also be conversations with the state department of education, and the legislature would likely have to get involved and amend the bill mandating five days per week of face-to-face instruction if school divisions feel the need due to the impacts of COVID-19 upon them to return to virtual learning.

Per health department guidance, vaccination is the top COVID-19 mitigation strategy, followed by masking and physical distancing.

Just 46.1% of the city’s population is fully vaccinated as of Sept. 14. Among those ages 12 to 15, 35.9% (1,816) are fully vaccinated, with 47% of those ages 16 to 17 (1,145) fully vaccinated, and 46% of those 18 to 24 (3,324) fully vaccinated.

Rice said few students had to be reminded about proper mask-wearing in the first three days of school, and though she said it is aiming to have everyone in schools be at least three feet apart, that’s not always possible with some classes at full capacity, and about 98% of the division’s 14,200-plus students attending classes in person.

“We’re keeping that three feet of distance as much as we possibly can, but we know it’s not going to be consistent all day long,” Rice said, “which is why that masking is so incredibly important.”

Other mitigation measures the division is taking include COVID-19 testing, ventilation, handwashing, cleaning and disinfection, staying home when sick and contact tracing.

Rice said the division’s nurses along with the local health department perform the contact tracing for positive cases.

Anyone who gets tested for COVID-19 by the division, or its provider, will do so by permission only — either parental permission for students or by consent for staff members.

She noted that a close contact at school is anyone who has been within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes throughout a 24-hour period. The infectious period begins 48 hours before the start of symptoms, or for those with no symptoms, 48 hours before the positive test specimen was collected. The period lasts 10 days, generally, from the date of symptom onset or positive tests unless a person has major underlying health conditions or a weakened immune system.

Someone who is fully vaccinated — someone who is two weeks past their second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or two weeks past the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine — and not experiencing any symptoms does not have to be quarantined.

For those who test positive for COVID-19, they must isolate 10 days from the start of symptoms or a positive test. For those not fully vaccinated who have to quarantine, they must do so for 14 days from the last exposure to the person who is COVID-19 positive.