Health and school officials remain optimistic that Bennett Elementary, the first Prince William County school building to be completely closed for in-person learning this school year, will be back open for students by next week. But they are stopping short of telling parents to plan for the return.
The school division announced Friday night that in-person learning would be temporarily suspended at the Manassas-area elementary school, and on a webinar for parents Monday night division officials said they were hopeful that classrooms would be back open after a week.
“At this time we have recognized the need to pause on in-person instruction and learning. The decision was made in collaboration with the health district and … we do feel like [the week] will give us enough time for any developing cases to be recognized, identified and to really evaluate the health in the building,” Associate Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Denise Huebner said during the webinar. “... But it is the intention for us to return to in-person learning as scheduled and noted in the communication that you’ve received.”
Officials from the county school division and the Prince William Health District said Monday that Bennett’s outbreak -- the 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. Right now, Fairfax County is the only county in Northern Virginia not recording high community transmission.
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.”
Huebner and Bennett Principal Shelley Pohzehl said the school was working closely with the health district to contract-trace all known cases and inform any close contacts. Classes will continue virtually with materials posted to Canvas, but Pohzehl said she understood that some families wouldn’t be able to make an immediate transition to virtual learning work. And when in-person learning resumes, school officials said there could be some changes, specifically naming extra-curricular activities as something that might be limited for a time to prevent future 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.”
Officials encouraged community-members around schools to make efforts to limit their risk of contracting COVID to help students stay in school, foremost among them to get a COVID vaccination if they haven’t already and to get their seasonal Flu shot. They also asked parents of students in any school to keep their child home if they’re not feeling well. More information about returning to in-person learning would come over the course of the week, division staff said.
“Because we are in a high-transmission community it’s important that not only do we practice good mitigation strategies in the school environment, but also outside the school environment,” Health District Director Alison Ansher said on the webinar. “I know it’s challenging that children have been unable to play and have birthday parties and what have you, but it’s really important … especially in these groups … that can’t be vaccinated.”