The Loudoun County School Board on Tuesday voted to shut down in-person learning for all students if community spread trends for COVID-19 cross two thresholds.
Under the action, if the number of new cases per 100,000 residents exceeds 200 during a 14-day period and the positivity rate of coronavirus tests reaches 10%, all students will return to 100% distance learning. On the day of the vote, the 14-day case number already was 208 and the positivity rate was climbing above 8%.
Those triggers were adopted on a 6-3 vote after two alternate approaches that would have provided options to keep some students in class despite increasing community spread failed to find majority support.
Superintendent Eric Williams had recommended that reaching the two trigger points should initiate consideration of halting the expansion of the hybrid learning program, which includes two days of in-person learning, as well as examination of whether to return students already in class to distance learning. He said Health Department Director Dr. David Goodfriend also favored that approach to allow school leaders to evaluate a variety of public health factors before rolling back in-person learning.
Another option under which the case numbers and positivity rates would halt the hybrid expansion, but allow those already in school to continue with in-person classes, also failed.
The action comes just before the next planned expansion of hybrid learning, when 8,300 more students in grades 3-5 and seniors at the Academies of Loudoun are slated to join the hybrid program Dec. 1. That’s also the time period when health officials expect to see a spike in cases following the Thanksgiving holiday.
Those supporting the use of automatic triggers to close classrooms said it was important to base the decisions on metrics that parents can easily track.
Right now, those trends are increasing.
“If we are at the highest risk, we need to take action. We are at the highest risk,” Denise Corbo (At Large) said.
A push by Beth Barts (Leesburg) to reduce the test positivity rate trigger to 9%—making a shut down more likely–narrowly failed on a 4-5 vote.
Jeff Morse (Dulles), Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge), and John Beatty (Catoctin) opposed the automatic shutdown triggers.
They pointed to the difference between community spread of the virus and in-school transmission. So far, the school division has experienced only isolated cases of staff members or students testing positive for COVID-19.
“We are doing a good job of keeping the classrooms safe,” Morse said, adding that School Board members already were hearing positive results of having pre-K through second grade students in class two days a week.
He urged the board to adopt a policy that would allow school leaders to react to changes in school conditions, rather than dictate an outcome. “There is no zero-risk solution,” he said.
Under the adopted policy, Williams has authority to close a class, a school or the entire hybrid program even if the triggers are not reached.
Any closure would be expected to be temporary, with in-person learning resuming when community spread numbers decline.