CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Community transmission of coronavirus outside of school buildings dictated the decision last week to reverse course and return most Chesterfield County students to virtual learning, according to a presentation to the school board Monday.
During the emergency meeting in which the school division and school board further explained their decision-making process, school officials said COVID-19 metrics over the past month have worsened dramatically in the county. With an anticipated spike in cases following Thanksgiving travel and gatherings, school leaders said the remainder of the marking period, which ends January 29, 2021, will remain fully virtual, except for students with special educational needs.
"That virtual setting is temporary. Our goal is to return to in-person instruction as quickly and as safely as possible. That has not changed. We do need favorable conditions for that to happen,” Dr. Thomas Taylor, Chesterfield Schools Deputy Superintendent, said.
Chesterfield County Schools is the largest school district in Central Virginia.
Since “cohort two” returned to school buildings, which included young elementary students, only 133 coronavirus cases have been reported among Chesterfield school staff and students.
The concerning transmission data includes a spike in cases per 100k Chesterfield residents and the percentage of COVID tests coming back positive.
The seven-day average of cases per 100k residents is 25, and the 14-day average is at more than 300, which school leaders say is 57-percent higher than their “high risk of transmission” threshold.
The seven-day positivity rate sits at 8.3 percent as of November 25.
“Staff and students are part of the broader Chesterfield community, where the spread is substantial. Substantial community spread and increasing community exposures lead to major staffing and attendee issues,” Nicholas Oyler, Student Health Coordinator for Chesterfield Schools, said.
The next key date for the next steps comes at the January 12, 2021, school board meeting.
Dr. Taylor said waiting until the next marking period to make changes gives teachers and families clarity on what will happen until the end of January, allows school leaders more time to review health data, and provides a natural quarantine following Winter Break.
Some teachers and families were critical of the district's decision to send students back into buildings at all this fall or winter, citing concerns about the spread of the virus and the possibility of reversal.
School board members said at the time the decision was made to pursue a hybrid learning approach, data showed it was safe to do so, just as it now shows the opposite.
“Hindsight, yes, we wish we had that crystal ball and we would not have yo-yo’ed in this manner. However now, lessons learned,” said Debbie Bailey, Chair of the Chesterfield School Board.
School leaders and board members praised the mitigation efforts of school staff and families who sent their students back into Chesterfield School buildings.
Bailey said the greater community needs to make a choice as to what they want to see reopen first.
“The community needs to pick: cocktails or schools. Because literally the community transmission rate so high, that’s why we had to shut down schools, not because our mitigation strategies were not successful," she said.
Elementary school students will learn virtually five days per week but with shorter learning periods to reduce screen time.
Chesterfield middle and high school students will continue with four days of virtual learning and asynchronous learning on Wednesdays.