Loudoun Co. students to return to in-person learning, some by mid-February

Virginia’s Loudoun County School Board approved a plan that will bring kindergarten through fifth grade students — whose parents chose hybrid learning — back to school buildings no later than Feb. 16.

In addition, middle and high schoolers whose parents previously opted-in to the hybrid model will return to classrooms two days per week by March 3.

During a six-hour Tuesday school board meeting, which heard public comments from dozens of frustrated parents anxious to have their children return to school buildings with classmates and teachers, the board voted to restart in-person learning after a jump in positive COVID-19 cases in the community in December prompted a return to 100% distance learning.

Parents who prefer to have children maintain 100% distance learning can do that, according to the plan.

The decision to jump-start hybrid learning comes amid the county’s multi-prong efforts to stabilize life for students and their families, while the coronavirus maintains a strong hold on the community.

Briefing the board, Interim School Superintendent Scott Ziegler said that as of this past Friday, 8,787 staff members have received their first of two doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Ziegler estimated that all staff members who chose to receive the vaccine will have received both doses by the middle of March.

During previous board meetings, several members as well as teachers urged delaying return to school until teachers were vaccinated.

County Health Director Dr. David Goodfriend told the board that after record numbers of new cases in the community one week ago — about 300 per day — the numbers in the past four days have between 100 to 120 cases per day.

“Still too high,” Goodfriend said.

The positivity rate for those tested has been approximately 15% recently, said Goodfriend.

“We’re not seeing large-scale outbreaks, we’re seeing small outbreaks, typically in families scattered throughout the county,” Goodfriend said.

“We expect that 100-plus to continue at least through February.”

In reviewing local data, as well as data from school systems throughout the country, Goodfriend told board members that schools following mitigation strategies — including maintaining 6-feet of social distance when possible, mask wearing and hand-washing — have not seen significant spread of the coronavirus within buildings.

“If that’s the case, then it’s just as safe, if not safer, having students and faculty in the schools as it is having them in the community, outside their homes,” Goodfriend said.

In addition, the board voted to add a third metric in evaluating whether conditions are safe for hybrid learning.

Until now, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health suggested making those decisions based upon the number of new cases per 100,000 as well as when the testing positivity rate was over 10%.

“The emerging school of thought,” said Ziegler, “is to also look at your mitigation methods and your transmission rates in school.”

Moving forward, the board will consider the two previous core indicators, as well as how the school is implementing measures proven to reduce spread when making decisions about whether to revert to distance learning or bring more students back to in-person learning.

WTOP’s Luke Lukert contributed to this report.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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