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WISE — LENOWISCO Health District’s director has called for eight Southwest Virginia school systems to move to virtual classes until after Christmas break, citing rising COVID-19 infection rates and many area residents failing to wear masks and follow health guidelines.

Dr. Sue Cantrell, who directs both the LENOWISCO and neighboring Cumberland Plateau health districts, said Friday that she put the recommendation into an information slide distributed last week to school officials in Wise, Lee, Scott, Dickenson, Russell, Buchanan and Tazewell counties and the city of Norton.

“I recommended schools consider changing to virtual for the (three) scheduled weeks from the end of Thanksgiving break to the beginning of the regularly scheduled Christmas break,” Cantrell said. “This recommendation is due to the high and rising burden of COVID disease, the increasing percent positive test results locally and regionally, and the lack of significant adoption of mitigation measures by many people.”

Cantrell said health and safety measures disregarded by many area residents include: wearing masks, physically distancing, avoiding gatherings with people outside their own household, avoiding non-essential travel, and washing hands frequently and properly. She credited school systems with doing a good job on cleaning and mitigation, but noted that community spread still exposes staff and students.

“In these (eight) localities, the risks associated with travel and gathering with those outside one’s household — social, extended family, church related, entertainment, etc. — have shown little indication of abatement as case numbers rise,” Cantrell added.

Citing rising case numbers and an expected increase related to holiday travel and gatherings, Cantrell said, “It takes three to four weeks to see the effect of mitigation efforts or lack of them.” Moving to virtual instruction from the Thanksgiving holiday until resumption of classes in January would help school divisions be ready to start in-person classes then, she added.

In an email to Buchanan County Schools Superintendent Melanie Hibbitts, Cantrell also cited Ballad Health’s hospital capacity and that health system’s search for 350 nurses as factors to consider for stopping in-person instruction until January.

Officials in the Wise, Lee, Scott and Norton school systems all confirmed on Friday that they had received Cantrell’s recommendations and informed their respective school boards.

Students in Scott County Schools returned to in-person learning on Nov. 16 after learning remotely Nov. 2-13. Assistant Superintendent Jason Smith said Friday that Superintendent John Ferguson had likely received the virtual learning recommendations from Cantrell either last week or this week.

Smith added that while school officials do take Cantrell’s guidance into consideration, it is just one piece of information they use to make learning decisions. Smith said school officials currently hope to continue in-person learning through the rest of the semester.

“Anything from Dr. Cantrell is always part of the discussion that we have as far as what we’re looking at for learning,” Smith said. “She’s an invaluable resource, but we look at several different metrics, including our own school metrics, which would be the amount of students positive, amount of students in quarantine, staff positive, staff quarantined. That gives us great data of how we are performing and functioning as a school system, separate than the county metrics.”

As of Friday morning, Smith said 80 students and 18 staff are currently in quarantine. Seven students and three staff have recently tested positive.

“Our metrics have come down tremendously over the past three weeks,” Smith said, adding that he credits the time spent in virtual learning earlier this month as a contributing factor to the lower metrics.

Smith said Ferguson has the authority to make short-term changes to the learning plan, if needed. Scott County Schools will begin a two-week Christmas break on Dec. 18, and the last day of the semester is Jan. 8.

Wise County Superintendent Greg Mullins echoed Smith in saying that he and staff are monitoring health metrics data from the Virginia Department of Health to assess any need for instructional changes. The division in September completed a two-week run of all-virtual instruction after concerns of rising infection rates in the county along with several reported cases among faculty and staff at that time.

“We’ve found that cases have not been due to in-school transmission,” Mullins said, adding that cases reported among schools have come from those persons’ exposure to community spread. “We meet with health department officials every week and we inform our board members.”

Wise County begins its Christmas break on Dec. 21 with a return on Jan. 2 and the end of the first semester on Jan. 19.

Norton Schools Superintendent Gina Wohlford said she has been monitoring both city and Wise County metrics, since Norton is almost in the geographic center of the county. Reported cases at the division’s two schools have resulted from exposure to community spread and not in-school transmission, she added. School officials have publicly reported 10 cases among students or staff since the school year began in August, but no changes have been made to instructional schedules.

Norton schools begin Christmas break on Dec. 21, with students returning on Jan. 7 to start the spring semester.

Lee County Superintendent Brian Austin said the county schools started an all-remote class schedule on Thursday in response to rising infection rates county-wide. That schedule overlaps with Thanksgiving break on Nov. 26-27, with students returning to in-person classes on Nov. 30. Students will also revert to remote instruction Dec. 21-23 before Christmas break runs Dec. 24 — Jan. 1. The school year’s third quarter begins Jan. 2.

“We keep the school board updated on health metrics and the school situation,” Austin said. “We do a good job with mitigation in the schools, but the challenge comes with the weekend, when people are out with friends or exposed to extended family members.”