By Stefanie Jackson – One Northampton student testing positive for COVID-19 was enough to slow down but not stop the school division from proceeding with plans to allow more students to begin attending class in person four days a week.
Superintendent Eddie Lawrence was notified Monday, Oct. 5, by the local health department that an Occohannock Elementary School student had tested positive for COVID-19.
Parents were notified by letters and automated phone calls, staff and students who were exposed were sent home for 14 days, and one classroom was closed for deep cleaning. The rest of the school stayed open.
Lawrence noted that more information about the COVID-19-positive student could not be shared due to privacy laws.
He added that no exposed students or staff had exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.
“I think that this is an opportunity to really emphasize to parents how critical it is for the schools to have accurate phone numbers in order to reach the parents,” said school board member Jo Ann Molera.
“Even in normal times, it’s important,” Lawrence said, noting that on rare occasions, a student will become seriously injured or ill at school, and a school administrator or staff member will need to accompany the child in the ambulance to the hospital because the parent is unreachable.
Molera suggested possibly setting up a notification system that could send a text message to parents who miss a robocall and do not have working voicemail.
Lawrence said he would look into it but pointed out that in addition to robocalls, notifications are also sent to parents via Facebook and Twitter, and “at some point, they’re going to have to help us and monitor something. … We do all that we can do.”
Responding immediately to a situation like a student testing positive for COVID-19 is “more labor-intensive than what people realize,” especially in the afternoon, Lawrence said.
The school must determine with whom the student had contact, phone calls must be made, and letters must be written, copied, and distributed, all while meals are being given to students for the next day, parents are arriving to pick up their children, and others are calling the office to find out what’s going on.
It’s “organized chaos,” said Maxine Rasmussen, the school board chair.
“The saddest part of this whole thing was I was going to start four-day kindergarten … on Monday,” Oct. 19, Lawrence said. The plan was delayed one week.
Most students in Northampton’s hybrid learning program attend school in person two days a week and spend the rest of the school week learning from home.
Some special education and pre-K students already attend school in person four days a week while maintaining social distance.
Lawrence is phasing in more face-to-face instruction starting with younger students, for whom virtual instruction is less effective.
He plans to allow first graders to begin attending school four days a week also – one week after the kindergarten.
Due to low numbers of local COVID-19 cases, Lawrence believes “now is the time” to bring kids back to school.
Associate Superintendent Christine Hill will submit changes to Northampton’s back-to-school plan to the Virginia Department of Education.
New procedures will include conducting additional COVID-19 screenings for students who come to school with temperatures over 99.6 degrees; students with temperatures over 100.4 degrees will still be sent home.
Lawrence said he wants to ensure that “we keep our schools as safe as we can.”
The school board unanimously approved his recommendations.
Lawrence wants to offer a four-day week to second and third graders next, and he’s concerned about career and technical education students, “who need a lot of hands-on time” to develop the skills they need to enter the work force.