As schools weigh a return to in-person learning, health officials won’t release details on COVID-19 outbreaks

By: - September 16, 2020 12:01 am

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver speaks at a press conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The majority of Virginia’s local school districts started the year remotely. But as divisions across the state weigh a return to in-person learning over the next few weeks, the Virginia Department of Health is still providing limited information on COVID-19 cases linked to K-12 schools.

 At a news conference Tuesday, Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said the department had no plans to launch a dashboard with site-specific data on school outbreaks — similar to the state’s data on nursing homes and assisted living centers, which since June, has identified the names of facilities with outbreaks of disease.

“We will certainly keep track of those outbreaks,” Oliver added, referring to multiple cases at K-12 schools. “I believe we can provide aggregate information, and depending on the nature of those outbreaks, may find the need to release information about specific outbreaks. But at this point, that’s about all I can say.”

VDH does classify outbreaks on its public COVID-19 dashboard broadly by location, including correctional facilities and “educational setting.” As of Tuesday, the department listed a total of 70 outbreaks in educational settings, but there’s no further breakdown of whether those cases occurred in preschools, K-12 schools, or the state’s colleges and universities, which have cumulatively been linked to more than a thousand cases

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In July, VDH refused to provide a more detailed tally of which types of educational settings have experienced outbreaks. The state’s Department of Education also doesn’t track cases or outbreaks at individual schools, according to the agency’s spokesman, Charles Pyle.

“No, we are not trying to duplicate the Virginia Department of Health’s surveillance system” he said in a phone call Tuesday. VDOE guidance recommends that schools inform parents, teachers and staff of a laboratory-confirmed case, and they “should be kept apprised of developing situations in which more cases are found and more stringent measures are planned in the school to prevent disease,” Pyle added in a later email. But currently, there’s no system — or requirement — to make the information widely available to the public.

Currently, 68 divisions across the state have started the school year remotely, and 64 have at least some in-person instruction in place. Only 10 have fully resumed face-to-face classes. But multiple local districts plan to at least consider a return to in-person teaching after the first few weeks of the school year. Some, including Chesterfield County, have already announced plans to reopen by the end of the month.

Returning to in-person instruction has been a significant concern to families and educators since Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled his phased reopening guidance for K-12 schools in June. Teachers have previously told the Mercury that reports of cases are frequently circulated on social media, where some educators have discussed creating new wills or developing advance directives in case they’re hospitalized for COVID-19.

The state’s General Assembly has considered several pieces of legislation related to COVID-19 in schools, though the future of many is still unclear. A Senate committee already killed one bill that would mandate registered nurses in all elementary, middle and high schools. Another Senate committee tabled a bill that would make it easier for school employees to claim worker’s compensation benefits, citing a potentially “massive cost,” but a similar version of the legislation passed 61-37 in the House.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.