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Spotsylvania, King George school divisions extend virtual learning because of COVID-19 surge
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Spotsylvania, King George school divisions extend virtual learning because of COVID-19 surge

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Public schools in Spotsylvania and King George counties will remain virtual for most students through the end of January because of rising COVID-19 case numbers.

The Spotsylvania County School Board voted Monday evening to continue virtual learning through Jan. 29, with a possible return to the hybrid in-person model Feb. 1 following a reevaluation of the health metrics on Jan. 26.

Students in King George County were scheduled to begin a hybrid in-person model for all grade levels Jan. 19, but the board voted to proceed with in-person learning for only “priority learners”—a category that includes students in grades K–2, students who received in-person special education or ESOL services during the first semester, and secondary students identified as being at risk of failing.

The board will reevaluate the health situation the week of Jan. 25.

Both school boards heard presentations about current COVID-19 health metrics during their meetings.

All school divisions in Planning District 16—the counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George and the City of Fredericksburg—are currently considered to be at the highest risk of transmitting COVID-19, according to two of the CDC’s three core health metrics.

As of Jan. 11, the number of new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days—the CDC’s first core metric—was 714 in Spotsylvania and 817 in King George. A number higher than 200 puts a school division in the “highest risk” category, according to the CDC.

The second core indicator is the percent of positive COVID-19 tests in the past 14 days. In King George, 19.9 percent of tests were positive and in Spotsylvania, 18.3 percent were positive as of Jan. 11.

The CDC’s third core metric considers the ability of a school division to “consistently and correctly” implement five key COVID-19 mitigation strategies—mask-wearing, social distancing “to the largest extent possible,” hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfecting and contact tracing with the assistance of the local health department.

King George Superintendent Robert Benson said it will be difficult to maintain 6 feet of social distance in school buildings, and he presumes contact tracing will be difficult because the local health district will be focusing on administering vaccines. Benson also said he has concerns about having enough staff in school buildings should all grade levels return for a hybrid model.

According to his presentation, between 14 percent and 27 percent of staff were absent from school buildings as of Jan. 11 because of personal medical exemptions, quarantine and family or medical leave.

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“That’s a stressor from a personnel standpoint,” Benson said.

Three of the five King George School Board members supported Benson’s recommendation to bring only priority learners back on Jan. 21, as opposed to all grade levels.

“I have had more contacts ... telling me that they do not want schools to reopen at this point in time,” said Gayle Hock, member at-large. “The majority are for a delay in implementation. If we bring K–2 back, we are beginning the reintegration process. I think this is a good start.”

James Monroe District representative T.C. Collins and Shiloh District representative Gina Panciera voted against delaying in-person learning for all students.

“Here we go again, pulling the rug from under everybody,” Panciera said, referring to the board’s decision last fall to delay in-person learning a few days before it was to start. “I don’t understand how we can do this to our constituents and our families and our teachers. I think this is a tragedy right now.”

In Spotsylvania, School Board members Lorita Daniels, Baron Braswell, Erin Grampp and newly elected Chairwoman Dawn Shelley supported the decision to stay virtual through January.

According to a presentation by division staff, the number of school employees impacted by quarantine had “more than doubled” over the past 24 hours.

Based on numbers as of Jan. 11, there could be 100 staff and students in quarantine on Jan. 19, when in-person learning was scheduled to restart.

The Caroline County and Fredericksburg City school boards also met Monday, but neither board made any change to the return-to-school plans.

Fredericksburg students who choose the hybrid model will return to school buildings Jan. 19 for in-person learning two mornings a week.

Caroline is scheduled to begin a hybrid program Feb. 1. Elementary students who choose the hybrid program will attend school five days per week, and middle and high school students will attend four days a week.

Gov. Ralph Northam has placed teachers and child care workers in priority group 1B to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. According to local school division staff presentations, vaccines will start being administered the week of Jan. 18.Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele

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