Following recommendations from public health experts and the latest data showing increases in local transmission of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) said there will be no change in its current mask policy when the new school year begins on August 23.
Revisions made to the policy at the School Board’s July 8 meeting remain in place. Masks are required of all students, staff and visitors in schools, offices, and other school division facilities when students are present. Masks are not required to be worn by students or staff during outdoor activities.
Separately, the school division said that beginning today, families will have an additional week in which they can make changes to prior decisions on how their children will attend school in the new year. By contacting their child’s principal, families can change their decision for either in-person or virtual attendance.
The most current health report from the Blue Ridge Health District shows that the COVID-19 case incidence rate (seven-day total) for Albemarle County, which was zero on July 8, is now at 46 cases per 100,000 people, the highest rate in recent months. The percentage of positive tests for the virus also continues to rise. Health experts have described the Delta variant of the disease to be 60 times more transmissible than the Alpha variant that preceded it.
“Our mitigation strategies throughout this pandemic have served the health interests of our students, families and staff very well,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, the division’s Chief Operating Officer. “Since March 2020, we have had nearly 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students, staff, and on-site contractors. Yet, there are very few instances in which it is suspected that transmission of the virus occurred on school property,” she said.
Schmitt attributed the relative non-existence of virus transmission in schools to the division’s comprehensive mitigation strategies, of which universal mask wearing has been a central component. “Continuing to wear masks,” she emphasized, “makes it possible for us to meet our commitment to provide full in-person instruction to all of our students while protecting their health and that of our staff.”
“We know that wearing masks, especially among younger children, can be a challenge, and we all are looking forward to the day when masks no longer are necessary,” Schmitt said. “However, the data tells us, as do our public health experts, that that day is still not here. We have seen the virus take sudden turns these past 16 months, and these latest developments only raise the importance of our protective measures.”
Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s leading public health experts of child health, recommended masks be worn by all students in the new school year. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made the same recommendation. The Commonwealth’s Blue Ridge Health District and local pediatricians who have been advising the school division also support universal masking when schools reopen next month.
The health district noted that a vaccine has not yet been approved for children younger than 12 years of age and that students will be inside for several hours during the school day. Both younger and older children go home to adults vulnerable to virus transmission, including grandparents who often serve as caregivers.
“The Delta variant clearly is spreading in our community and a layered approach, including vaccinations, masks, social distancing, and attention to symptoms, is essential to containing the spread and making it possible to resume normal activities as soon as possible,” said Ryan McKay, Incident Commander for COVID Operations for the Blue Ridge Health District.
One hopeful sign has been local vaccination rates for youth between the ages of 12 and 17. To date in Albemarle County, nearly two out of three youths between the ages of 12 and 15, or 65.6%, have been vaccinated, as have three out of four youths, or 74.1%, of those 16 to 17 years of age.
Children who are vaccinated will not be required to quarantine at home if they are exposed to a person who tests positive for the virus or displays viral symptoms.
A change in CDC guidance also provides that in the K-12 indoor classroom setting, the close contact definition now excludes students who were within three to six feet of an infected student if both students were engaged in consistent and correct use of well-fitting face masks and other K-12 school prevention strategies (such as universal and correct mask use, physical distancing, and increased ventilation) were in place. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults in an indoor classroom setting.
Fully vaccinated, asymptomatic individuals do not need to quarantine.
A video featuring a physician member of the division’s Student Health Advisory Board on vaccines for eligible students is available on YouTube: Why Student Vaccinations Are Important. A Spanish version is also available: Por qué son importantes las vacunas para los estudiantes.
More information is available by calling the Blue Ridge Health District’s COVID-19 Hotline at 434-972-6261 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, or by visiting the Virginia Department of Health’s Vaccination FAQ web page.
In accordance with public health guidance, Schmitt said the division has made some changes to its mitigation strategies over the past several months, reducing the amount of social distancing in classrooms from six feet to three feet. Also, temperature checks are no longer required when entering a school building, and masks are no longer required when students or staff are outdoors. With the installation of HEPA filters on all school buses, buses will operate at normal capacity when the new school year begins next month.
“We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 transmission data in our community and in our schools and regularly consult with the health department on our mitigation strategies,” Schmitt said. “Based on this data and counsel, we will continue to be flexible in making adjustments when it is safe to do so,” she added.
CONTACT: Phil Giaramita, Strategic Communications Officer