Loudoun Co. superintendent, school board irked by CDC guidance on return to school

The number of COVID-19 cases in Loudoun County is currently too high to bring students back to school buildings more than two days per week, Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler told the school board.

Looking forward, Ziegler and School Board Member Jeff Morse both voiced frustration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for safely returning students to classrooms, saying Virginia school systems would have to disregard CDC guidelines to bring more students back.

Although coronavirus cases locally are declining, Loudoun County’s recent numbers keep the county in the CDC’s “highest” risk of transmission category, leading Ziegler to conclude that increasing the number of weekly in-person learning days above the current two would be premature.

Ziegler said he would explore the feasibility of expanding in-school learning again on March 23. As for the upcoming school year, Ziegler said the plan is to begin with a “post-COVID normal.”

Ziegler told the board he would be closely monitoring effectiveness of vaccinations, and possible spread within the school system: “We will have five days of in-person learning for the majority of students, beginning in the 2021-2022 school year, with continued options for distance learning, based on need or choice.”

Ziegler said the challenge will be to determine which mitigation efforts should continue: “Will five day a week in-person learning look like it does now, with students wearing masks and physical distancing, with breath guards still up on student desks, or will we be at a place, globally, where we’re able to relax some of those mitigation strategies.”

Virginia health and education officials have allowed schools to consider shrinking the current 6-foot distance between desks to a 3-foot separation, provided masks are worn. This week, Fauquier County became the first in Northern Virginia to take that step, announcing plans to bring students back four days per week.

However, Ziegler and Morse said current CDC guidance does not present that option.

“Based on the current CDC guidance, even if our case rate goes to zero, and our positivity rate goes to zero, the recommendation is still six feet of distance to the greatest extent possible,” said Morse.

Given the available space in county schools, and the number of students, Ziegler was asked whether the school system would be able to guarantee the minimum distance permitted by Virginia health and education standards.

“(With) 26 children in any classroom, we would not be able to provide three feet of full distancing for all students and teachers,” Ziegler said.

Local, state and federal health and education officials — including Dr. Anthony Fauci — now believe the risk of spread is lower in schools that adhere to strict protocols than elsewhere in the community.

Ziegler suggested the board may need to consider other entities, in making return-to-school decisions.

“The CDC today says, ‘you need to strictly adhere to six feet of physical distancing,'” Ziegler said. “If that’s going to remain the CDC guidance, then we have some decisions to make at the local level, whether we’re going to continue to adopt the CDC guidance.”

Ziegler said Virginia’s health and education departments have typically incorporated CDC guidance into state-level guidance.

The school system plans to survey parents in May to hear their initial preferences for the next school year.

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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