Contributed photo - Rita Browning teaches math class at Laurel Park Middle School.
Contributed photo - Rita Browning teaches math class at Laurel Park Middle School.

“We’re awful proud of the way we’ve been able to handle the pandemic”: superintendent commends division for proactive pandemic approach

The numbers might sound alarming at first. Since the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) started tracking the data last year, more than 1,000 COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in Virginia’s K-12 facilities, including public and private institutions “with 30 or more students and staff members”, accounting for more than 5,700 COVID cases. If pre-kindergarten instruction occurs at a K-12 facility, those cases may also be included in outbreak counts.

In the grand scope of COVID positivity rates, schools appear to remain one of the safest places for children. Since March 2020, VDH has tracked over 971,000 cases statewide, where cases in schools have accounted for just half a percent of all commonwealth cases. To be classified as an outbreak, the VDH has stated that there need to be at least two cases reported.

Vaccines for teachers became available near the start of 2021, while vaccines for those 16 and older became available in April. By the end of October, children five and older became eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine.

Classroom Case Counts

Several school divisions across the commonwealth tracked COVID case counts, including Bristol Virginia Public Schools (BVPS); a division that instructs more than 2,000 students. During the 2020-21 school year, there were 84 cases in the division, according to a chart last updated on Aug. 17. School-aged children accounted for 73 cases, with a total of 23 cases in the division’s four elementary schools, 29 cases in the middle school, and 32 cases in the high school. 

So far, there have been 106 cases in the 2021-22 school year, according to a chart last updated Dec. 1. There are nine active cases in the division’s school-aged children, with a majority of cases reported in elementary schools.

Over the past year-and-a-half, less than five exposures traced back to in-school transmission, said Superintendent Keith Perrigan. 

The division has experienced a significant dip in cases for its staff members this school year. During the 2020-21 school year,, 40 staff members contracted COVID-19. This year, there have been 16 reported staff cases.

Perrigan had a hunch as to why a relatively low number of staff members contracted the virus this year — the division offered the COVID vaccine to school staff as soon as it became available. The rollout occurred onsite and was so large that the division closed school for a few days.

“We have taken the stance of highly encouraging all stakeholders to be vaccinated. We have not required it, but we have certainly put incentives out there,” he said. “Everything from providing additional sick days for getting the vaccine and the reactions that may have come from it to paying our staff members who get the vaccine a $500 incentive and even encouraging our students by if they’re involved in a club, after-school activity, sport or band; every student that got a vaccine who was part of those programs, we donated $100 to their program.”

Persevering in a Pandemic

“Last August, we were one of the few school divisions in the commonwealth that opened up with a fully in-person option for families if they so chose,” Perrigan said. “We have really been open the entire time that we were allowed to do so.” 

Approximately 70% of BVPS students returned to in-person instruction in August 2020, finishing out the spring semester with 85% in-person attendance. For the 2021-22 school year, only 5% elected to learn virtually.

“We have had pretty good success in providing in-person instruction during a pandemic,” Perrigan said. “But the big reason for that is we developed a team very early on that included our leadership team, parents, students, staff members, [and] members of the community to really come together and really think about how we could pull this off. By having all of those stakeholders at the table, we developed a plan with great mitigations that was agile. We made changes as we went, as we saw what was working and what was not.” 

For in-person learners, the division takes the normal precautions like wearing face masks and social distancing. However, they also partnered with the local health department early on. Through that partnership, on-site students and staff received free COVID tests. 

“That allowed us to do two things. Number one, to react quickly if we did have a positive case,” Perrigan said. “But also two, shift our attention to where it needed to be if we had a suspected case that actually ended up being negative.”

In an effort to keep the case counts low, the division took proactive approaches to the pandemic, including ways to keep students in the school buildings and out of quarantines. For example, BVPS switched to a virtual format for one week after Thanksgiving and one week after Christmas break last year. 

“If you avoid the criteria for quarantine, certainly you should avoid in-school transmission,” Perrigan said. 

Vaccinating the Littles

As the fall semester comes to a close, BVPS still remains vigilant in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Shortly after the FDA granted an emergency use authorization for the 5 to 11 age group to get the COVID vaccine, BVPS was ready. 

“We actually offered the vaccine clinics for our students,” Perrigan said. “Each time a new age group was added, we offered that vaccine clinic at our schools for our students.”

From March 2020 school lockdowns to Dec. 2021, there have been undeniable changes to education. But BVPS, along with thousands of school divisions across the country, demonstrated strength and tenacity through it all. 

“We were blessed, but certainly had a little bit of luck to go along with it,” Perrigan said. “We developed a great plan, our staff implemented it well, and our parents, our students and our community stakeholders collaborated with us. And when you’ve got that combination, we’re awful proud of the way we’ve been able to handle the pandemic, for sure.”

COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots are readily available in Virginia. To schedule an appointment, visit vaccinate.virginia.gov, call your primary care provider, or contact your local health department.