Amid a period of sharply increasing COVID-19 cases, the Loudoun County School Board tonight is scheduled to resume talks about how and when to get students who want in-person instruction back into the classroom. And just like the caseload, the intensity of the debate continues to escalate, with one School Board member today reporting a threat her safety.
The school division had been on a path to fully implement its hybrid learning program—providing about half its 80,000 students with two days of on campus classes—by the start of the second semester on Jan. 21. However, increasing cases through December forced a rollback to 100% distance learning just before the winter break.
Classes are expected to continue online at least for the next few weeks, but administrators are making preparations for a second semester launch. Today, staff members involved in the hybrid program were notified that they should return to their school buildings on Jan. 12 to prepare for the possibility of a “swift return” of students.
The School Board has been divided on the course of action for months. Some have touted the relatively low health risk to students and the educational and emotional benefits of having students in classrooms. Others have cited the high community caseloads, concerns about the safety of teachers and other staff members and inconsistent implementation of on-campus safety protocols.
Meanwhile, at each board meeting the School Board hears from dozens of parents and students pleading for a return to class, and dozens of teachers raising concerns about their safety. The Loudoun Education Association is leading an “it’s not safe” campaign to push for a delay in in-person learning.
Beth Barts (Leesburg) has been among the most vocal opponents of a return to class, arguing that it is not yet safe to do so. During the winter break, she has been posting comments on her Facebook page from worried educators sharing their experiences with in-person learning and saying it is unsafe because of unavoidable close contact with students, concerns about inadequate disinfection and PPE, and inconsistent mask wearing by some staff members.
Today, Barts posted a threat that she received warning that parents press for schools to reopen may seek “other means of persuasion” to change her view, including having a “militant opposition to take dramatic action.”
“Let me be very clear. You send veiled threats to an elected official… and sign it…. the police will be called. I have ignored the hate but this is ridiculous,” she wrote.
Leesburg Police Department spokesman this morning said he could not comment on “an active investigation.”
Denise Corbo (At Large) also has been active on social media seeking input from educators. A former teacher, she has consistently raised concerns about workplace safety and ensuring teachers have adequate protections before supporting in-person learning.
“Undeniably, we can all agree the best place for students and educators are in the buildings designed for them. Based on the emails I’ve received the majority who have participated in hybrid have been very happy with their experience and were happy to be back in the buildings,” she wrote in a Facebook posting. “Concerns are mostly centered around safety: school spread, metrics levels, changes in metrics, P1 and P2 status, having all staff in the buildings, and the enormous amount of time it takes to teach DL and Hybrid, and transitioning between the two platforms. I intend to share these concerns with the administration.”
Under current School Board policy, in-person classes are to be suspended automatically when the 14-day average of new daily cases reaches 200 or the 14-day average positivity rate of COVID-19 PCR tests reaches 10% for five consecutive workdays. The case rate has been over 200 more than a month and currently sits at 413. The average positivity rate crossed 10% last month and is at 14%.
During tonight’s meeting, the board will discuss additional measurements that could allow more students to participate in the hybrid program based on conditions at their individual schools or a specific high school cluster of schools. Those include demonstrated compliance with mitigation strategies, the availability of staff members and instances of in-school transmission.
To date, the school division is reporting only 11 incidents of on-campus transmission: eight involving staff member to staff member transmission, one case between a staff member and student, and two athletic cases. The cases occurred at 11 different schools and involved 24 employees and 16 students.
The lack of evidence of outbreaks in the schools is among the factors cited by proponents of a return to the classrooms.
According to a state health department dashboard, there have been outbreaks reported at two Loudoun public schools, at Dominion High School in August and at Heritage High School last month.