One week after it shifted all classes online amid surging COVID-19 cases in Orange County, the Orange County School Board met for an update Monday morning.
The nearly two-hour meeting included approximately a dozen school administrative staff and a handful of members of the public. By the time it was over—Orange County Schools would remain online only at least through Friday, Jan. 15, and it would not resume athletics in the interim.
At the Jan. 4 school board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead presented his recommendation that all students learn virtually at least through Jan. 15, with the earliest possible return date being Tuesday, Jan. 19.
Dr. Snead cited workforce availability as a driving factor with local case counts surging and more and more school staff either needing to quarantine or isolate because of positive exposure.
At that time, Dr. Snead pointed to metrics illustrating 649.5 new cases per 100,000 over a 14-day rolling average and a positivity rate of 14.5%. (For comparison’s sake, he said those same metrics recorded Nov. 21, 2020, revealed 166.5 new cases per 100,000 persons within the last 14 days and a 6.1% RT-PCR positivity rate.)
At Monday morning’s update, Dr. Snead told the board those figures had increased to 805.0 new cases per 100,000 on a 14-day rolling average with a positivity rate of 15.7%.
In meeting with Rappahannock Rapidan Health District officials Monday morning, Dr. Snead said school administrators reviewed the trending data and learned local hospitals are full as of this weekend. Health department officials continued to stress the danger of shared air spaces and the schools’ workforce continues to diminish as more staff are quarantined or forced to isolate after possible exposure.
He also said the decisions to pause in-person learning at both Orange Elementary School and Locust Grove Primary School were because of a lack of staff caused by community-spread of the disease.
As he and other administrators studied the disturbing data over the schools’ winter break, he said it became clear there were two choices.
“We could run the train off the rails and allow our staff to get sick until they can’t come to work, and allow our students to participate in activities,” he said. “Quite frankly, in some peoples’ minds, that may be the easy solution.
Instead, school administrators recommended pausing in-person learning and suspending athletic competition at least for a two-week window.
“All these decisions are made with the heaviest of hearts,” he said. “We know what best practice is. Best practice is 100 percent of our students in school, face to face with their teachers. Best practice is 100% extracurricular activities moving forward.”
The situation is not a cancellation of school or athletics, he stressed.
“It’s a temporary rest. Orange County High School Activities Director Mike Neeley is working to resume athletics in the near future. We believe we can salvage the winter season and have no reservations at this point about proceeding with spring and fall sports,” he said.
“We understand what everyone wants because we all want the same thing,” he continued. “We all want our students to have 100% access to everything. We just need to figure out how to do it safely and maturely.”
District 5 board members Jim Hopkins said Dr. Snead’s comments were contradictory.
“You more or less implied we could salvage our winter sports season, yet all the data is pointing the other way,” he said.
“If we remain in this pause until Jan. 19 and this data can move south, and we can resume, we believe we can reschedule these contests,” Dr. Snead responded.
“The data suggests it’s not going to get smaller, but bigger,” Hopkins replied, suggesting that whether or not parents want to permit their children to play in school sports should be an individual choice for families to make.
In her comments, District 1 representative Carol Couch, a former emergency room nurse, said the fact that hospitals were full was the most compelling point she’d heard.
“Teenagers and their parents may not be in the age groups that get most seriously ill, but if the hospitals are already full, if they’re in an accident or have an asthma attack or something, they can’t get medical care,” she said. “You don’t realize how easy it is to overwhelm a hospital. That’s from a medical viewpoint. Not an opinion. We have to protect people.”
District 3 board member Mike Jones, an investigator with the Virginia State Police, said he assumes a certain level of risk with his job each day. He then asked those assembled to raise their hands if they knew someone who had died of COVID-19. Approximately half of the 25 people in the room raised a hand.
“People’s lives are being affected. It’s worth a pause,” he said. “Last week, when we walked out of this meeting, I felt like I’d been hit with a two-by-four.” He said in the past week, he’s had multiple conversations with teachers and parents, adding, “We need to appreciate and understand the balanced hand of leadership.”
District 2 representative and board chair Sherrie Page said she couldn’t eat nor sleep for days after last week’s meeting and that the decision to pause the winter sports season, “ripped me to the core.”
However, she said the superintendent’s job is to consider data and, with the guidance of the health district, suggested if the board didn’t heed that recommendation it would be “irresponsible.”
“Kids may not be in the highest risk group, but we can’t allow that to happen,” she said. “I can take the heat with making the decision to pause the sports season over deciding not to and it took a kid’s life. It’d rip me more to think I could have saved a child and didn’t.”
Hopkins had additional questions and asked Neeley if the return-to-athletics plans OCHS staff had put in place could be considered a success?
Neeley said he wasn’t sure how to judge success in the scenario.
“We’ve held competitions, but there were no spectators. Some would say that is a failure,” he said. “But we have had activities, so that could be judged a success.”
After further discussion, Hopkins made a motion to reinstate the winter sports season immediately, which Jones seconded.
But Page said the board needed to convene in closed session to discuss personnel issues and District 4 board member Bette Winter said she’d prefer not to vote until she had all available information. With that, Jones withdrew his second.
“The only thing it could be is personnel in quarantine,” Hopkins said, as the board broke for a nearly hour-long closed session.
When the board emerged, Hopkins again made the same motion.
With no fellow board member seconding the motion, it died.
On the Jefferson District website where each of the member schools’ schedules reside, Orange County’s entries read “Orange County has temporarily suspended in-person learning and athletics until at least Jan. 15. The situation will be reevaluated at that time.”
The first event scheduled following that period is a wrestling match at the Hornet Sports Center Monday, Jan. 18.