Now that most students in our area are back in classrooms, schools are having to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within their buildings. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
[Sound of kids playing, talking]
On a recent afternoon at Brownsville Elementary School in Crozet, kids clambered around the playground during an after-school program. They're a small portion of the more than 13,000 students enrolled in Albemarle County Public Schools, which, despite being one of the largest school districts in the region, also has one of the lowest rates of COVID per capita. As of Wednesday, they've had 115 cases since the beginning of the school year - which breaks down to about seven cases per 1,000 students and staff.
ROSALYN SCHMITT: We are very fortunate to live in a community with a very high vaccination rate, and I think we're seeing the impact of that in our schools. Both in our adults and within our student populations.
Rosalyn Schmitt is the division's chief operating officer. According to data from the Virginia Department of Health, 75% of adults in Albemarle County are fully vaccinated, six points higher than the statewide rate.
SCHMITT: We have a very tight mitigation strategy and plan that puts in as much guidance as we can practically do, including masking, distancing, hand washing. We benefit from key partners in our community, including the Blue Ridge Health District, who have been an integral part to all of our preparation going into the school year. But also we have a group of local pediatricians and other doctors who have volunteered their time and expertise to support every little detail in the preparation for school.
The Albemarle County School Board also decided last week that all school employees must either be vaccinated or show a negative COVID test every week; 84.8% of their staff is fully vaccinated.
Ryan Mckay, director of policy and planning for the Blue Ridge Health District, agreed that trends in the larger community are playing out within the schools.
RYAN MCKAY: I think that what helps Albemarle County and, in some ways, Charlottesville city, is the vaccination rate among adults and the 12 to 17 year old population. The county has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state.
The opposite is happening in neighboring Augusta County, where just 57.5% of adults are fully vaccinated. Since the beginning of the school year, officials have reported 597 cases among students and staff. Augusta County school officials did not respond to WMRA’s request for an interview.
Situated in Augusta County, Waynesboro City also has quite a few cases for the size of their district -- 128 since the beginning of the school year, which comes out to about 37 per 1,000 students and staff. It should be noted, though, that school started on August 10 in Waynesboro and Augusta -- two weeks before Albemarle -- so they are reporting over a longer period of time.
JEFFREY CASSEL: We are experiencing some cases of COVID, but when we do contact tracing we are finding that those are caused by outside contact and outside influence, not contacts within the buildings.
Superintendent Jeffrey Cassel said Waynesboro schools have been following all the mitigation guidance from the Department of Health and CDC. More than 90% of their employees are vaccinated.
CASSELL: Our community transmission is substantially higher than it is in our school buildings, so the only thing I would say is, we think our students are safer in school than out of school, because parents have to work and so students end up in childcare or doubled up in households with other families, or there's additional people at home in that household. Our older students often don't stay at home. They may go to the park or out to socialize, so they're mingling outside of the building.
Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, confirmed that rising COVID cases within local schools are --
DR. LAURA KORNEGAY: … really just a reflection of the very high community transmission we're seeing … In general, we have a very good relationship with all of the schools. The superintendents and staff have worked really hard to enact all of those mitigation strategies.
She noted that, to her knowledge, Highland County Schools do not have a universal masking policy in place. The school board has delayed their opening until October 1st.
Both Cassell, in Waynesboro, and Schmitt, in Albemarle County, said that quarantining positive students and their close contacts has been an important part of preventing transmission in the classroom, but it does create difficulties for parents.
CASSELL: Generally once we're able to explain things, parents understand. Not all agree with it, certainly. It's extremely inconvenient, and we understand that. The pandemic is inconvenient in many ways to people. We feel like that's the standard that the department of health and CDC recommend. It keeps all of our faculty and staff and students safest.
Cassell said they want students in classrooms, but also want to make sure they aren't spreading the virus while there.