Education

WISE — Norton school officials made it past the five-day mark of the fall semester on Tuesday without any reported COVID-19 cases or quarantines as they and Wise County school administrators watch rising case trends in the region.

Norton started its fall semester classes on Aug. 5 with a four-day week at the city’s elementary/middle and high schools and Friday designated for remote learning and deep cleaning of school facilities.

Norton School Superintendent Gina Wohlford on Tuesday said that only one student had been sent home after screening for a high temperature on arrival at one of the two city schools last week.

The city schools’ policy for a high temperature requires remaining at home for 72 hours and not showing any COVID-19 symptoms, Wohlford said, and the student was able to return to school.

“We’ve been very fortunate, and we’re taking it one day at a time,” Wohlford said.

The Wise County School Board met on Tuesday, with board members and school Superintendent Greg Mullins discussing a recent spike in the county’s reported COVID-19 infections.

Under the county schools’ reopening plan, classes start Aug. 20.

Since Aug. 1, according to Virginia Department of Health data, Wise County’s total number of COVID-19 cases almost doubled by 89 cases to 168 cases reported on Tuesday. Norton, in the same period, saw its case total rise from 13 to 21.

The LENOWISCO Health District, including Norton and Wise, Lee and Scott counties, saw its case total rise from 245 to 425 in the same period.

“Please take the steps to do the things that will help our community heal and take a step back from where we are,” Mullins said in a public plea.

Mullins outlined the county’s reopening plan, which had been detailed in previous board meetings this summer, and said that measures including extra cleaning equipment and supplies, social distancing, masks and a hybrid schedule rotating students into two groups on Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday with Wednesday as a deep-cleaning and remote learning day.

Mullins said that just over 1,700 students out of an approximately 5,000-student enrollment had opted for remote-only learning.

School Board chairman Larry Greear said that, looking at the figures on expected on-site students, “It doesn’t look like schools are going to be very crowded.”

Mullins said that recent discussions between school administrators and LENOWISCO Health District Director Dr. Sue Cantrell have centered on state health data for Wise County. The county’s percent of positive COVID-19 test results, or percent positivity rate, stands at about 14.2 percent. In recent weeks, state health officials and Governor Ralph Northam said the desirable goal for percent positivity is about 5 percent.

Board member John Graham asked Mullins if there was a statistical point in terms of school case numbers that would lead to a switch to all-remote classes.

“There is not a magic number,” Mullins said, adding that the health department would be contacted when a case or cases appear in each school. The health department could make recommendations on any quarantine or closing of class or buildings based on how many students or staff were exposed at what proximity and for how long.

If county infection rates continue as in recent days, Mullins said that could require an “immediate conversation” with the board on what to do about continuing on-site classes.

County Schools Technology Director Scott Kiser said that his staff has been planning on the contingency that the state may order on-site school classes closed in favor of all-remote classes.

Board member and physician Mark Raymond, asked if there was a “best-case scenario” where a regular five-day, all-on-site school week could resume. Mullins said that would involve an improvement in the county’s infection rate well below current numbers.