Some health officials have urged schools to close. But that advice isn’t always being shared publicly.

By: - December 17, 2020 12:02 am

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks in 2020. (Chesterfield Public Schools)

Kathryn Brown, an elementary school teacher in Waynesboro, was initially puzzled when she noticed other local schools transitioning back to online learning after Thanksgiving break.

“Rockbridge County, for example, announced they were switching to a virtual model,” Brown said in an interview on Tuesday. “And they cited an email from [Central Shenandoah Health District Director Dr. Laura Kornegay] where she strongly encouraged them to do that.”

Her division, though, hadn’t made any changes. Since October, Waynesboro has been admitting kindergartners for in-person instruction five days a week, with a rotating hybrid schedule for first through fifth graders. Brown said she hadn’t seen the email from Kornegay, and wasn’t aware of any new guidance from the health district.

It wasn’t until local news outlets began running stories that she learned the advice came from a sternly-worded message Kornegay sent to health officials and local school administrators the Monday before Thanksgiving.

“We’ve seen an increase in [COVID] cases across all age ranges and sectors, including schools, workplaces, congregate and health care settings,” she wrote, citing an “upward slope” in the region’s epidemic curve. “At the same time, we are seeing variable compliance with mitigation efforts and increased need for enforcement related to large gatherings and lack of masking.”

As a result, Kornegay suggested local school divisions go fully virtual after Thanksgiving break and remain closed for the rest of the year. 

“I gave you the most conservative recommendation based on the current district situation, but I can’t project the future,” she added in a follow-up email. Given the district’s trends, though — including a surge in hospitalizations that was likely to grow — Kornegay described the ongoing circumstances as “not good.”

Central Shenandoah isn’t the only health district to issue such a gloomy prognosis to local schools. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Dr. Sue Cantrell with the Cumberland Plateau and Lenowisco Health Districts “strongly urged” local school leaders to go all-virtual after coming back from break. 

A school bus in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

In early December, the Mount Rogers Health District — next to Cumberland and Lenowisco in the far southwestern corner of the state — made the same recommendation. District Director Dr. Karen Shelton pointed to rapidly rising cases in the region, which threatened to overwhelm the department’s contact tracing resources.

The Virginia Department of Health couldn’t provide the exact number of local health districts that have issued similar guidance. But teachers across the state say the recommendations aren’t always shared widely by school leaders. 

Mount Rogers issued a public press release announcing the new advice. But in other cases, both educators and parents have only found out through the local news — or, occasionally, when emails are leaked over social media.

“School districts have a lot of metrics that they look at, and I understand that,” Brown said. “But I do feel like we all have the right to have that information so we can make our own choices.”

She felt so strongly about the issue that she created an online petition asking VDH to publish new guidance at the same time it’s given to school administrators. Right now, Brown is teaching virtually, which requires her to go into the classroom to record lessons but not to interact with students face-to-face. But she said she’s more concerned for other educators, and especially for parents who might be sending their children to school without knowing there’s contrary public health guidance.

Another teacher’s aide in Russell County said much of the frustration stemmed from the fact that local divisions could still opt to ignore the advice (she asked not to be named out of concern that she could be penalized by school leaders for speaking out). Russell County originally decided to go virtual for a week after Thanksgiving rather than extending the closure through the winter holiday. 

In early December, the school division reversed the decision, announcing it would suspend in-person classes and athletics until the start of the new year. Two days later, it made another reversal, announcing that athletics could begin as scheduled — “on a voluntary basis” — “after additional consultation with our school board members.”

“I think principals will sometimes say, ‘We have no say in this — it’s totally up to the school board,’” the teacher’s aide said. “And I think that’s an issue for Gov. (Ralph) Northam. He left it up to the local school boards, and I think that’s a mistake, because they can just vote to do whatever they want.”

Underlying much of the anxiety is ongoing confusion over the transmission risk in local schools. Since VDH launched its school dashboard in late September, the state has recorded a total of 66 outbreaks — many linked to private religious schools, and many with such low case counts that the department suppressed the actual number to preserve patient anonymity. 

State leaders and public health experts have often emphasized the low case counts in schools and the mitigation measures in place to protect students. But some districts are also reporting serious staffing challenges driven by the pandemic. On Monday, Fauquier County announced it was transitioning to online learning due to “catastrophic workforce shortages,” including 51 employees who tested positive or had a potential exposure to the virus. Brown said the message is muddled by rising numbers across the state and recent recommendations from local health departments.

“We already have those two emails from Dr. Kornegay from Nov. 23, but the situation has only worsened in the three weeks since then,” she said. “So, I really wonder if there’s been further guidance that I don’t know about.”

Earlier this month, State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said that greater spread in the community increased the likelihood of encountering COVID-19 cases anywhere — including in schools. But Shelton, the district director in Mount Rogers, said her guidance also stemmed from concerns over the region’s strained contact-tracing resources, which had forced officials to prioritize the highest-risk cases.

For Mount Rogers, those are cases among health care workers, in congregate settings, and among patients more likely to develop severe cases of the disease. As a result, a healthy student or teacher who tests positive might not get a call from a case investigator — making it more difficult to contain potential spread in schools.

“It’s really just because we couldn’t provide the safety net to the community any longer,” Shelton said. “When you can’t keep out the people who are getting sick, you also have a higher risk of outbreaks.”

Even with increased risk factors, the debate over reopening schools continues in Virginia. Shelton said there were valid concerns from some counties in her rural district where broadband access is an impossibility for many families. Dr. Colin Greene, the director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, said his community was seeing more cases outside of schools than in them — and worried that removing students from a structured setting with clear rules would make slowing the spread even harder.

“If you turn them loose into the community where none of that is going on, it’ll probably make it even worse,” he said. Shelton said there were times in her district when more virtual students had to isolate or quarantine than students attending classes in-person. But since Thanksgiving, the number of school-related cases has been on the rise, mostly driven by socializing outside the classroom.

“The schools were a safe place,” Shelton said. “People were able to do the mitigation, we could follow up, and because of the good practices they had, we were able to keep that transmission negligible. But when we can’t support that — because they congregate every day — that really increases the risk.”

Since Shelton issued her recommendation, every school division in Mount Rogers has made the decision to go virtual until after winter break. But it didn’t happen right away — and not every school leader cited the health department’s guidance.

Superintendent Keith Perrigan of Bristol Public Schools said his board met the following Monday and voted to continue in-person classes. “We’ve been operating in the red based on those metrics from the very beginning of August,” he said, “and even though we’ve had a couple of cases, we’ve not had any examples of transmission.”

The division’s latest dashboard shows a total of 28 student positives and 27 employee cases. But on Saturday, Perrigan announced that several essential staff members would be unable to come into work the next week, making it impossible for the school to operate its full safety plan.

“Our plan has been phenomenal, but it has only worked because we had phenomenal people implementing it,” he wrote in a Facebook message. Perrigan declined to specify which staff positions were out, saying the information would be too identifiable in such a small district. But he shared that four people would be out. Three of them had contracted COVID.


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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.