ASHLAND, Va. -- Students at Liberty Middle School in Hanover will start the school year several days after the rest of the district, after three employees at the school tested positive for COVID-19.
News of the positive cases came only hours before some of the students were set to return to the building.
A spokesperson for the school district said leaders remain “optimistic” remote instruction for students at Liberty will begin Thursday, September 10.
Hanover Schools allowed families to choose whether their student would begin the school year fully virtual or attend classes in-person. Of the 17,500 HCPS students, 61 percent opted for in-person instruction, and 39 percent decided to go fully virtual.
The Chickahominy Health District helped identify and trace those Liberty employees who were potentially exposed to the virus. At least 15 employees are currently in isolation because of potential exposure.
Dr. Thomas Franck, Chickahominy’s Health Director, said from a public health perspective, the circumstances at Liberty Middle provided a real-world test of their virus surveillance plans inside a school building but without students present.
“When we heard of the second case, we started to get a little bit nervous,” Dr. Franck said. “Timing couldn’t have been much worse, here the day before school opened, but you know there’s COVID-19 out there in the community. As people come back, we’re going to discover cases of COVID-19 that probably wouldn’t have been discovered.”
Health officials are in weekly, if not daily, contact with school leaders about the prevalence of the virus statewide and in the immediate community, Dr. Franck said.
The decision to temporarily close Liberty Middle came just hours before the school year was set to begin, meaning families had to pivot quickly.
With students returning to buildings in Hanover and across Central Virginia, CBS 6 caught up with Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane and asked him his view of the situation at Liberty Middle. Although Lane did not directly address the situation, he said local school divisions and health departments must work closely to ensure the safety of students and school employees.
“The community has to be prepared for flexibility. COVID-19 will write the rules. We have great administrators in all of our schools, and they’re going to find solutions,” Dr. Lane said during a visit to Colonial Heights schools. “Ultimately, flexibility and patience are what’s going to make this school year successful.”
Hanover employees are not required to get tested before returning to work unless they have been in direct contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, school leaders said. Health officials are now offering testing to everyone who entered Liberty Middle over the past two weeks, Dr. Franck said.
All three positive cases at the school displayed symptoms of COVID-19, although two of the three were mild, according to Dr. Franck. He said it is an example of why seeking help when you feel sick and reporting it to officials is critical right now.
“We identified cases of COVID-19 that may have been walking around in the community for a week or longer,” Dr. Franck said. “My advice to everybody in general is have a low threshold for assuming you might COVID-19, so if you have any symptoms at all.”
Liberty Middle School’s principal will communicate their final decision on the start of school as soon as possible, a HCPS spokesperson said.