Bennett Elementary students head back to class next week after COVID ‘pause’

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Students will be back at Bennett Elementary on Monday after a weeklong suspension of in-person learning due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Officials from the county school division and the Prince William Health District said Monday that Bennett’s outbreak — the Manassas-area school had 36 confirmed COVID-19 cases when the division announced its closure — was a mix of transmission within the building and outside the building. The county remains at a high community transmission level as determined by the Virginia Department of Health.

In a note to the school community on Friday, Principal Shelley Pohzehl said the time off led to a decline in case activity over the week, and in-person learning can resume as planned on Monday.

If your child was a close contact and was asked to quarantine, they should not return until the end of the specified period, she warned.

“It is important to note that the Health District has informed us to expect that additional cases may arise,” Pohzehl wrote.

She urged parents to keep children home if they are sick; seek testing if they have potential COVID symptoms and remain home if they have a pending test.

County health officials said as with any school where children are too young to be vaccinated, the school community was reliant on adults within the community to get vaccinated to limit the amount of community transmission that could infect students and school employees. Even against the highly-contagious Delta variant, vaccines are shown to be effective at reducing transmission of COVID-19 and severely lowering the chances of serious illness or death from COVID. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine for use in 5 to 11-year-olds before the end of the month, which would make young elementary-age children eligible for COVID vaccination for the first time.

“There definitely appears to be a combination of transmission occurring in the school and then transmission among the community members of the school, potentially outside of the school,” said Sean Morris, an epidemiologist with the health district. “Really what it comes down to as to why cases did rise as fast as they did, we don’t have a clear answer at this time. And that’s part of the reason we recommended the pause, is anytime we need to recommend an intervention, we’re going to recommend it as specific and tailored as possible to stop the spread. Part of the reason we had to go as widespread as we did is we couldn’t really clearly identify any points that would stop transmission.”

Superintendent LaTanya McDade has said that no other school in the division was nearing the threshold that would cause a suspension of in-person learning. According to the division’s health dashboard, 1,066 students are currently quarantining and 193 students are isolating. In total, there are roughly 90,000 students in the division.

“It’ll be more challenging … the teachers are there to support, to explain, to really elaborate on this new learning,” Pohzehl said Monday. “So we really encourage you to make every possible effort possible to allow your students to be online and be in those sessions.”

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