PORTSMOUTH — As the number of COVID-19 cases creeps back up, Hampton Roads schools could end the year with the same uncertainty they had at the beginning.
Churchland High School students were sent home for the remainder of this week after the school day Wednesday due to a spike in COVID cases among staff members, a decision seen much more often during the waves of illnesses fueled by the delta and omicron variants of the virus.
Chief communications officer Lauren Nolasco said entire schools in Portsmouth moved to remote learning seven times during January and February. Churchland is the eighth, not counting individual classes or grade levels.
Before this, the last school within the Portsmouth Public School division to move to virtual learning was Churchland Elementary School on Feb. 7. Around that time, Portsmouth’s cases per 100,000 population seven-day average for COVID cases was about 33.8. Though the most recent averages have not reached the same levels just yet, they have been on the rise since the start of the month, reaching more than 10 around the time the high school made the shift.
Michelle Winz, senior epidemiologist with the Portsmouth Health Department, said that there have been more calls from day cares and other schools in recent weeks, which corresponds with the rising number of cases in the community. Still, she said it’s “nothing like the volume we experienced at the beginning of the year.”
The rise in cases goes beyond the region. The cases per 100,000 population seven-day average statewide around the time the Portsmouth high school closed its campus was 25.15 after hitting a low point of 7.76 at the beginning of April. Since then, cases have been steadily rising. Still, current hospitalization rates are only at a couple hundred compared to the more than 3,700 in January.
When COVID does spike within a school, the health department works with the administration to make recommendations on how to handle the situation. Winz said the goal is to prioritize in-person learning, so mitigation measures such as masks and quarantining are recommended when a COVID case is identified. In cases with high in-class transmission, an entire classroom could be sent home, typically for the five day-recommended period.
The decision to send an entire school to virtual learning ultimately comes down to the school administration.
“We really don’t want to move whole schools virtual,” Winz said.
However, at Churchland High School, with seven staff members out due to testing positive and more out with symptoms, the administration determined the safest course was a shift to virtual learning.
Nolasco said that in that situation, it was “more dangerous to be in that building due to lack of staff.”
According to the district’s updated COVID-19 quarantine information, actions like this can be considered “if there are extraordinary circumstances,” including staffing shortages as an example.
School divisions across Hampton Roads have plans in place for if and when classes or entire schools have to quarantine due to COVID.
Winz said there is still a strong push for awareness, COVID testing and vaccination. She described overall vaccination rates in the Portsmouth community as “decent,” however that’s not the case when looking at specific groups.
In Portsmouth, the 5 to 11 age group has a vaccination rate of roughly 21%. Also, just under half of 25- to 34-year-olds are vaccinated.
This data along with the “fluid” nature of preschool classes have meant that more elementary schools have seen higher transmission rates, said Winz. A list of Portsmouth schools that went virtual at the beginning of the year showed that many of them were elementary schools.
Moving forward toward the end of the school year, just weeks away for Hampton Roads schools, there is some uncertainty surrounding any future COVID surges. Winz said the new variants that are circulating, BA.2, BA.4 and BA.5, could be driving the recent increase in cases.
“To what extent these variants may cause additional surges in our community, we just do not know,” Winz said in an email. “COVID-19 is a very humbling virus, and I’ve made predictions in the past that ended up missing the mark.”
Kelsey Kendall, firstname.lastname@example.org