Having so far administered thousands of COVID-19 vaccinations to employees and with updated coronavirus-related guidance from the Virginia Department of Education, the Loudoun County School Board on Tuesday discussed the possibility of initiating part-time in-person learning for all grade levels by March 3.
According to board documents, the Loudoun County Health Department opened a vaccination pod for school system employees on Jan. 15 at Brambleton Middle School in Ashburn and administered more than 3,700 vaccinations in the first week. LCPS Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Services Asia Jones said school system nurses are currently authorized to administer the Moderna vaccine and will soon also offer the Pfizer vaccine.
LCPS Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler said as of Tuesday, 6,178 vaccines had been administered, and roughly 1,700 more had been scheduled for the remainder of this week. School Board Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District) praised the quick decision-making that enabled such rapid administration of the vaccine and, therefore, likely expediency of the return to hybrid learning.
“Thank you and the staff for being able to execute that and put us in a position that is very different than [what] other divisions are experiencing,” she said to Ziegler.
“I have to say, the speed that this pod went up and what your whole group has done is just amazing, and I thank you and them,” Leslee King (Broad Run District) added.
The VDOE released its new guidance Jan. 14, and Ziegler told the board this new information supersedes all prior state guidelines. While LCPS based its decision last month to halt the implementation of its hybrid learning model on two core indicators of community coronavirus spread — case incidence rate and percent positivity — Ziegler said the VDOE is starting to place more weight on school- and division-based indicators.
“The state guidance [initially] really emphasized the community indicators as a measure for either being in-person or being in hybrid learning or distance learning,” he said. “Now the state is starting to de-emphasize those first two core metrics, because what they fail to do is take into account transmission rate in the classroom, school and cluster level.”
Part of the new VDOE guidance includes a graph that closely resembles the recently-adopted LCPS Risk Matrix for In-Person Learning, which combines community transmission with the level of school impact and schools’ ability to implement mitigation strategies to determine in-person learning allowance. Despite the adoption of the risk matrix, the school system’s current plan dictates that hybrid learning only resume if either of the community-based core indicators falls below the “highest risk level” for five consecutive days.
“If the board were to adopt an alternate motion to that, what we could easily refer to as the weighting of the two core metrics would go down,” Ziegler said. “They will still be in place; they just won’t receive the all-or-nothing weighting that they are receiving now.”
LCPS staff outlined a possible alternate motion, which would direct Ziegler to return students in the first three stages of the school system’s hybrid implementation model to part-time in-person learning no later than Feb. 16, and would initiate hybrid learning for “Stage 4” students no later than March 3. The first three stages include all students through grade 5 as well as certain English-language learners, special education students and Academies of Loudoun attendees, while “Stage 4” involves all secondary students. All four stages only apply to students whose families chose to participate in hybrid learning.
Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles District) noted the current LCPS plan and the potential alternate motion based on VDOE guidelines are “almost mutually exclusive,” further arguing the CDC-provided core indicators of community spread are “less reliable” than school-level mitigation strategies when it comes to determining school safety during the pandemic. He asked Ziegler whether LCPS has seen significant in-school transmission when health mitigation protocols are properly followed, to which the interim superintendent answered “no”.
“Even with the highest protocols in place, our [current] model does not permit any students — any students — back in school until one of the two … less important metrics are met,” Morse said. “We have a choice at this time to either continue to operate with the metrics that the experts up here on the dais have put together, or to look at the metrics that are provided by VDOE, which indicate even at the highest level of transmission, that our high-risk children should be back in the classroom.”
“We have spent a lot of time in planning and getting all the ducks in a row. My sort of feedback speaking with principals is they’re ready [for a return to school buildings],” Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn District) added. “The staff is ready.”
The proposed alternate plan will return to the School Board as an action item during its Thursday work session.