Amid surging COVID-19 cases, three elementary schools to shift to virtual learning

Published 7:33 pm Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Kilby Shores, Mack Benn Jr. and Southwestern elementary schools will transition to virtual learning for the week of Jan. 17-21 as more than 1,000 students and “an overwhelming number of staff” are in quarantine due to COVID-19, according to Superintendent John B. Gordon III.

Gordon wrote in a letter to families that the high numbers of students and staff in quarantine “has caused (the school division) to be concerned about the operational effectiveness of our schools. As our quarantine numbers continue to rise, remaining in in-person learning is simply a risk that we could no longer continue to take in certain schools.”

The three schools shifting from in-person to virtual learning are doing so due to outbreaks in the school, the percentage of staff on quarantine and class closures. Gordon said students, families and staff should plan to resume in-person learning Jan. 24.

“This decision aims to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our buildings,” Gordon said.

He said students in virtual learning would log into their classes daily via Canvas during their regular school schedule, while teachers and staff will work from their buildings.

Gordon said it is possible that several other schools could also be shifted to virtual learning. He said the division would continue to work closely with the Suffolk Health Department to monitor those schools’ statuses.

“This is a fluid situation, and we will make adjustments as necessary,” Gordon said.

Building rentals and facility use, he said, will also be temporarily postponed.

Gordon also outlined procedures for virtual instruction, school hours, checking out hotspots and meal distribution. Students will receive a five-day meal kit Jan. 14, though parents, he said, may need to make arrangements to help. Meal distribution will also be available from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Jan. 18 and Jan. 20.

Anyone needing to pick up medications for their children at the affected schools should contact the respective school to make arrangements. SPS is closed Jan. 17 in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

He said schools would provide additional information on community child care options by Jan. 14.

Division had been reviewing plans for virtual learning

With case counts and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 at pandemic highs in the city, Suffolk Public Schools alerted parents Jan. 11 that it had been reviewing plans should schools have to revert to virtual learning.

A letter to parents from Community Engagement Officer Anthonette Ward stated that school administrators will review several factors before a school would shift to virtual learning: school positivity rates, the number of students and staff in quarantine and the total number of staff needed to maintain normal operations, “as we are mindful of overall staff and burnout.”

Cases rising

The city’s 7-day positivity rate for COVID-19 was 42.6% for the week ending Jan. 8, the most recent period for which city data is available. Across the Western Tidewater Health District, which includes Suffolk along with Isle of Wight County, Southampton County and Franklin, had a 7-day positivity rate of 41.7%.

The city’s 7-day average of cases as of Jan. 12 is 227 and included a pandemic-high of 334 cases Jan. 8. Since Jan. 1, 142 people in the city have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and Sentara Obici Hospital has 79 people hospitalized with the virus, up from 39 at the beginning of the month.

SPS reported 57 cases among students and staff for the winter break period from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2 and 65 with COVID-19 for the week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, the latter being the most cases the division has reported in a single week since it began posting data in September 2020. The winter break week included 12 cases at Nansemond River High School and eight cases at both Oakland and Hillpoint elementary schools for the week ending Jan. 9. Since the beginning of the school year, there have been 622 cases in the school division, according to its dashboard. The school division notes as a disclaimer that one case does not necessarily equal one person, and it can include one person who was at multiple locations.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, three schools in the city have had outbreaks, with the most recent being at Kilby Shores Elementary School, where seven cases were reported Dec. 17. The state health department currently lists the public health investigation status for the school as “outbreak pending closure.”

To be classified as a school-associated outbreak, the transmission must have taken place within the school facility or at a school-sponsored event among students, faculty, staff or visitors, according to information posted on the SPS Health Dashboard page of its website.

Two other schools also had reported outbreaks this fall — King’s Fork High School (reported to VDH Aug. 24) and at Nansemond River High School (reported to VDH Sept. 1). In both cases, case counts were suppressed to preserve anonymity.

The state department of health, as of Jan. 1, also changed its definition of an outbreak. Previously, two cases were needed to declare an outbreak at a given location. That has been changed to three.

Should the division, or any of its schools, return to virtual learning, “quarantine and isolation guidelines will remain in place,” the letter to parents states.

It also advised that children in quarantine are strongly encouraged to not have any interactions with other students on neighborhood playgrounds or gatherings outside of school.

“If Suffolk Public Schools transitions to virtual learning,” the letter states, “notification will be sent out to parents regarding child care, meal distribution, athletics, extracurricular activities and other important information.”

Legislation adopted by the General Assembly last year does not allow school divisions to return to virtual learning, though individual schools can shift to virtual. Suffolk Public Schools shifted to virtual learning in March 2020 after Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools statewide as the pandemic began.

The 2020-2021 school year also started in virtual learning for all students, and shifted to hybrid learning in March 2021, with some students returning to school twice per week and others remaining entirely in virtual learning. The current school year has seen most students return to in-person learning, with a small number of students opting for virtual learning.

Nansemond River also announced on its social media pages that due to the rise in COVID-19 cases, there will be limited capacity at its games beginning Jan. 14. The division had canceled all afterschool extracurricular activities during the week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 7, and it also canceled its Jan. 8 SPS Saturday Academy.

In October, the Suffolk School Board approved a plan to dismiss students early every other Wednesday beginning Nov. 10 and continuing through June 8 to provide more planning and professional development time for teachers and instructional staff.

At that time, Gordon explained that he and the board had heard from many people concerned about teacher burnout.

Staffing shortfalls have continued to be an issue for school divisions in Western Tidewater, Hampton Roads and across the state with shortages of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers and other support staff. That does not include those who are out with COVID-19 or in quarantine.

At least six schools in Chesapeake have returned to virtual learning this week as it has reported 225 new COVID-19 cases and a 14-day total of 579, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

Suffolk’s board voted in December to increase pay for substitute teachers, to $125 per day for both degreed and non-degreed short-term substitutes, and $175 per day for long-term substitutes regardless of degree status. Those rates will be in effect for the rest of the current school year and will be reevaluated for future years based on conditions affecting classroom coverage.

The School Board is scheduled to receive a COVID-19 health dashboard update at its Jan. 13 meeting.