Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

When the FDA grants an emergency use authorization for the COVID vaccine to kids under 12, the commonwealth will be ready.

RICHMOND—“We have been preparing for a long time, and when approval comes for kids [under 12] to be able to receive their shots, Virginia will be ready,” Gov. Ralph Northam said last week.

On Sept. 27, the governor addressed Virginia at a press conference about the commonwealth’s continued response to the COVID-19 pandemic and COVID vaccination—and about half of that discussion centered around children. Northam invited school superintendents from across the state to discuss their pandemic mitigation strategies, vaccination rollouts, and future plans. 

The press conference came days before the Virginia Department of Health reported two children in the eastern region had died from COVID, including a 10-year-old girl in Suffolk.

While it’s still unclear when younger children will be eligible to receive COVID vaccines, the conversation last week offered parents some reassurance that state and local leaders aim to continue their efforts to keep students safe. 

Vaccine Accessibility 

At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, Arlington Public Schools (APS) required all of its staff to get vaccinated. Now, 91% of the school division’s instructional staff report getting their shots.

Realizing the need for vaccine accessibility, the division created a model catered to faculty, staff, students, and parents. APS provides vaccine clinics during the day, afternoon, evening, and even on the weekends. The vaccine clinics also operate during early release and professional development days.

“And we’re prepared to do that again for our [students ages] 5 years and older,” said Dr. Francisco Durán, APS superintendent. “We work at each of our school sites, and we have afternoon and evening availability for families to come in.”

In addition to the vaccination opportunities, the division also offers weekly COVID testing for families that request it. Currently, about 25% of the families in the division participate in the testing.

“Our parents and our community are familiar with their ability to come to their local school and get those services that are needed,” Durán said.

A Community Comes Together

When the pandemic hit Southwest Virginia, the community figured out ways to come together, even while staying apart.

“You know, in Roanoke City, we have a slogan that’s more than a slogan for us. It’s, ‘We are one.’ And that’s really how we’ve come together as a community to be one body. That’s how we’ve navigated this global pandemic,” said Verletta White, Roanoke City Public Schools (RCPS) superintendent. 

Like the area’s mantra suggests, RCPS partnered with organizations throughout the city during the pandemic. Their partnership with the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts brought about weekly meetings and monitoring for not only RCPS, but also surrounding school districts. 

“We watch and follow the COVID numbers, as well as the exposures and hospitalizations,” White said. “We believe that information is really critically important as we conduct strategic planning and as we’re looking at our way forward.”

Also, thanks to the collective partnership, RCPS rolled out an on-site school vaccine option. In the coming weeks, the division will offer opt-in weekly COVID tests on-site. The division put both offerings in place at the school buildings, the locations being in the best interest of the students. 

“It’s not just the physical safety of students, but it’s also the social, emotional safety of our students,” White said. 

The Safest Place for Richmond Students

Since the start of the school year, there have been 200 confirmed COVID cases within Richmond Public Schools (RPS). But 98% of those infections occurred outside of school property, according to Jason Kamra, RPS superintendent, who said the mitigation strategies worked. 

“I would venture to say the safest place for children in Richmond—and I would say all across the commonwealth—is inside school,” Kamra said.

Still, with exposures come quarantines. 

“And the very best way we can limit quarantines is to increase vaccination—increase vaccination amongst our students, our staff and our community,” Kamra said. “We have a vaccine mandate for our staff precisely for this reason, but we also appeal to our community to increase the vaccination rate. And we are thrilled that once the vaccine is available for younger students, to be able to provide it to them as well. And we will do so at our schools. We believe we need to make this as easy as is humanly possible for our children and for our families so that we can get that vaccination rate as high as it possibly can be.”

The Coming Weeks

There’s not an official vaccination date set for children ages 5 to 11 yet. The Food and Drug Administration first needs to issue an emergency use authorization (EUA), which some experts—like Dr. Danny Avula, state vaccine coordinator, and Northam, a pediatrician by profession—expect may come later this month or early in November.

Ahead of the anticipated EUA, school districts are gearing up for the vaccine distribution. 

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“We’re really excited about this opportunity again, to find yet another way, yet another measure, to keep our students and staff safe [and to] keep them in schools this year and moving forward,” Durán said.

As the pandemic continues to impact Virginia schools, White reminded residents across the commonwealth to thank the health professionals who’ve been there all along—the school nurses. 

“I would say to anyone out there, if you get an opportunity, thank your school nurse because they have gone above and beyond the call of duty to take care of staff and students, to make sure that [they’re healthy],” White said. “They’re dealing not only with COVID-19, but also with all of the other health issues that come along the way during a regular, normal school year—all of the scrapes and sprains, as well as cold and flu.”

Northam also took a moment to thank school nurses, as well as teachers, staff and administrators for their dedication over the last 18 months. 

“I know that our schools have faced enormous challenges from this pandemic, but our teachers, staff, and our children have really been troopers throughout this. And from the beginning, we have followed the science, and we know what our schools are doing is working,” Northam said. “And we know that the safest place for our children to be—and where they need to be—is in our school.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com.

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