By Stefanie Jackson – The Accomack school board voted 6-3 Tuesday night in favor of reopening schools to students two days a week starting Monday, Jan. 25, following a two-week period in which all students were required to learn remotely due to an increase of COVID-19 cases in the schools and community.
School board member Edward Taylor called the vote “jumping the gun” because the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published by the Virginia Department of Health, indicates Accomack schools are still at the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The data is color-coded according to the level of risk of COVID-19 transmission it represents: dark green, lowest risk; light green, lower risk; yellow, moderate risk; orange, higher risk; and red, highest risk.
Accomack schools remain at highest risk for transmission of COVID-19 as of Jan. 20, according to two core indicators: 1,120 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people within the last 14 days, and a COVID-19 test positivity rate of nearly 20% within the last 14 days.
New cases of COVID-19 would have to drop to 200 or fewer, and the COVID-19 test positivity rate would have to drop to at least 10% for the risk of transmission to drop from the red level to the orange level.
Accomack is in the green for a 43.5% drop in new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period and for having only 77% of regional hospital beds occupied. Accomack is in the orange for having 16% of regional hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Accomack schools Coordinator of Student Health Services Tonya Martin offered two reasons for reopening schools on Monday: More than 14 days have passed since the end of the winter break, when COVID-19 cases were likely to rise due to potential exposure to the virus during holiday travel and large family gatherings, and even though data still indicates a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, the numbers are “trending downward.”
Northampton schools Superintendent Eddie Lawrence had a different opinion. He believes that not enough time has passed to qualify the falling COVID-19 numbers as a trend, he told the Eastern Shore Post on Wednesday.
Northampton students likely will not return to school in person until Feb. 1, he said.
Northampton’s COVID-19 data placed the school district at the same level of risk of transmission of the disease as the Accomack school district.
The motion to reopen Accomack schools Jan. 25 passed with three school board members voting “no”: Edward Taylor, District 2; Camesha Handy, District 5; and Janet Turner, District 7.
In another matter, Finance Director Beth Onley announced that Accomack and Northampton may be making progress in their quest for the Cost of Competing Adjustment or COCA – state funding that helps schools offer competitive salaries for teachers.
COCA was created for Northern Virginia counties that compete with nearby Washington, D.C., for teachers.
Del. Karrie Delaney is a Virginia delegate from Fairfax County, which receives COCA. She sponsored a bill that would “restore the COCA funding from its current 10.6% to what it used to be – the historic rate of 24.61%,” Onley said.
The bill continues: “The amount provided includes expanding COCA to Accomack and Northampton counties, as proposed in the introduced budget.”
Onley was “excited” that a delegate from a Northern Virginia county that receives COCA proposed expanding the program and mentioned Accomack and Northampton by name.
State Sen. Lynwood Lewis introduced Senate Bill 327 to the Virginia General Assembly last year to make Accomack and Northampton schools eligible for COCA. The bill passed the Finance and Appropriations Committee in a 15-0 vote but was continued to 2021.
This story was updated to clarify that the number of new cases of COVID-19 identified in a 14-day period, as reported on the Virginia Department of Health School Metrics website, is per 100,000 people.