According to the Virginia Department of Health’s (VDH) COVID-19 reporting site, Blue Ridge School was listed as having a COVID-19 outbreak in progress that began on April 1, with 15 positive cases of the virus. This is the first reported outbreak at the school, which has been operating under a strict “bubble” protocol of isolation since its reopening in August. However, Blue Ridge School has only 13 listed in connection with the school testing positive.
An outbreak in an educational setting is defined by VDH as “two or more laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff with onsets within a 14-day period, who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing.” (https://preparedness.cste.org/?page_id=211) In other words, this means cases which were spread at the facility in question.
“I believe there were 12 students who tested positive and then I know of one staff member,” said John Dudley, director of marketing and communications for the school. “We had a number of students stay on campus during spring break—some are international students and some are athletes—so it was among that group of students.”
Neither Dudley nor the campus security director could clarify why the state health department had an additional two cases listed as part of the outbreak.
Blue Ridge students hail from 23 states and 17 countries, so testing and quarantine protocols were necessary to ensure all 150 students could establish a local “bubble” of COVID-19 safety at each start of term this year, according to Headmaster William A. “Trip” Darrin.
The fall term saw no cases of the virus at the school, which is isolated on 750 acres in the Dyke area of Greene County. After winter break, with the local surge of cases in the general population, the school purchased a rapid testing machine to use if someone was showing symptoms and again utilized their process of two-week quarantine and staggered return of students to the campus. However, even with students and employees wearing masks and social distancing and with the body temperature-monitoring smartwatches provided for every student, spring break saw the group of students contracting the virus.
Spring break began on March 1 and lasted two weeks, during which time the cases in question were identified and the students were immediately quarantined. It is unclear why it took a month before it was noted on the VDH website.
“The students who lived within driving distance, their parents came and picked them up; and those who for whatever reason needed to remain on campus did remain on campus in isolation in one of our medical facilities,” Dudley said. “And then the remaining students on campus were also quarantined during that time so they could be monitored for any symptoms and they were tested regularly to see if any additional cases came up.”
Only one student had mild symptoms while the others were asymptomatic, according to Dudley. All have fully recovered and are back in class at this time, and no further cases have been identified at the school.
“We worked with the department of health to do contact tracing and there was no definitive source or initial point of contact, which is a little frustrating,” Dudley said. “As you can imagine, our goal is to prevent any cases of COVID on campus, so knowing how one occurs could help us prevent any in the future.”
Darrin noted that the bubble at Blue Ridge is not entirely foolproof, as some staff members live off-campus and the school does receive deliveries. Some students have had to leave campus to go to doctor’s appointments and other necessary trips on occasion.
“I think when we first set out, I had this vision that we create the bubble and then everybody would take their masks off and we’d be running across the field happily and life would be normal again,” Darrin told the Daily Progress last month. “It never was, because we can’t.”
The school’s recently purchased rapid COVID testing machine has come in handy in checking any students who may exhibit symptoms, according to Dudley.
“We were thankful that if something like this was going to happen, that it happened when it did—when most of our students were not on campus,” he said. “It was much easier to contain and to monitor the rest of the students … Everyone’s recovered; everyone’s back in class (and) we’re excited about these last couple months of school.”
According to Dudley, nearly 99% of the school’s faculty and staff are already fully vaccinated against the virus.
The outbreak dashboard for Greene County has also been updated to report an additional two cases and one death in the Accordius Health outbreak first reported Jan. 26, for a total of 82 cases and nine deaths. In addition to the BRS outbreak and an earlier outbreak with seven cases at the healthcare facility reported last July, these make up the only three outbreaks reported for Greene County. Of the 80 reported outbreaks in the Blue Ridge Health District—which includes Greene, Albemarle, Louisa, Fluvanna and Nelson counties and the city of Charlottesville—only six (7.5%) were in K-12 educational settings, while more than a third (31%) were in long term care facilities and nine (11%) were in universities.
Greene County Public Schools has noted on its own dashboard a total of 34 student cases, nine staff members and two contractors testing positive for the virus since Sept. 8, with no known outbreaks within the school buildings. It is important to note that positive cases in students or staff where the person did not set foot inside the school buildings during their suspected illness are not included on this dashboard, which is meant only to report school-related cases.
As of April 12, Greene County had reported 1,181 cases of the virus with 61 requiring hospitalization and 15 deaths. To date, 6,893 Greene County residents (approximately 35% of the population) have received at least one dose of their COVID vaccine; 4,117 (21%) are fully vaccinated against the virus. For the latest COVID-19 data in the Blue Ridge Health District, visit https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-brhd-data-portal.