Orange County Public Schools abruptly ceased in-person instruction last week as CDC indicators currently rank the local system in the category for highest risk of introduction and transmission of the infectious illness.
In fact, all school districts in the five-county region currently also have the same high risk ranking, showing up as red on the K-12 school metrics scale Virginia Dept. of Health uses to help inform decision-making about school format during the continued pandemic. The data is based on community transmission rates in the wider communities.
Orange closed its school buildings effective Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 15. When asked if that would help manage spread of COVID-19, Rappahannock Rapidan Health District Director Dr. Kade Kartchner responded, “We provide data to the schools. Their board and staff make decisions as to how they will deliver instruction.”
As of Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, Orange, of the five counties in the health district, had the highest positive test rate for COVID-19 in the past week at 15.8 percent followed by Rappahannock County at 13.2 percent. In Culpeper, 10 percent of tests came back positive last week and in Fauquier County, the COVID-19 positivity rate was 10.3 percent. Madison had the lowest at 6.1 percent.
The test positivity rate is among “Core Indicators for Dynamic School Decision-Making” established by the federal government for states and localities to follow.
Orange County Schools Superintendent Cecil Snead, in a blog post Tuesday, explained in detail the school system’s rationale for switching to all virtual, sharing the CDC data since December and the clear pattern of test positivity rates rising.
“The recent convergence of several data sets created a picture that suggests we can no longer safely sustain in-person instruction in a responsible manner that contributes to the greater good,” he wrote. Staffing availability is also an issue, the superintendent said. The Orange County School Board voted to cease in-person learning at its meeting on Monday after hearing the CDC data.
“These metrics are not only consistent within the highest category of risk for community transmission, but they are trending upward,” Snead said. “While we are not suggesting that our schools contribute to the transmission of COVID-19 within our community, as we do have proven successful mitigation strategies, we are suggesting that such high community transmission could place employees and students unwittingly at risk due to being a part of a form of congregating.”
Secondary indicators shaping school decisions is percent change in new COVID-19 cases the past seven days compared to the previous week. In Orange, there was a 32.1 percent jump in new cases last week per 100,000 population, according to VDH data for Jan. 8.
Madison reportedly saw a 60 percent rise in cases in the past week, Fauquier increased 37 percent per 100,000 population and in Rappahannock there were 43 percent more positive cases reported. The school metrics chart on Friday ranked all of those counties as red for highest risk.
Culpeper was the only health district county to show up green (lowest risk) for new cases last week, showing a 6.4 percent drop in new coronavirus cases compared to the week before.
District-wide, cases continue to be at levels higher than seen before in the pandemic, Dr. Kartchner said on Thursday. “Not surprisingly this translates into more hospitalizations.”
Secondary indicators to support the decision-making process in local schools regarding COVID precautions include percentage of hospital beds in region occupied.
For the Culpeper area health district as of Friday, 82.5 percent of hospital beds were occupied with people, considered moderate risk by the CDC. Of those, 15.8 percent were occupied by people sick with coronavirus, considered “higher risk.”
Since Jan. 1, VDH has reported 14 new COVID-19 hospitalizations in this health district and four new deaths from the virus.
OCPS had offered a combination of in-person learning and virtual learning since August 24, 2020. Around 54 percent of students were doing the hybrid model of coming to school while the rest were doing all virtual learning. Now, all the students are learning—teachers instructing—via Chromebook.
Fortunately, throughout the year, Orange County teachers, like elsewhere, have been improving all aspects of virtual learning to provide students with learning that most closely resembles authentic engagement, Snead said.
“The virtual learning of today is much more resilient than last year,” the superintendent said, noting all-virtual is, admittedly, a last resort, which disrupts the lives of employees and families. “But when presented with health and safety issues, we believe we must accept the reality maturely and responsibly … In the pandemic we have to find resiliency and grace.”
A bit of good news, the vaccination rollout in the health district is moving forward successfully.
“By the end of today over 900 doses will have been given by the health district team over the past week to healthcare providers and frontline responders, adding to the many doses given by our two hospital systems as well,” Kartchner said on Thursday.