By Callie Hietala
Student health and safety was the main topic of discussion at Wednesday’s weekly COVID-19 press conference, hosted by the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce.
With students back in the classrooms and schools being required to provide an in-person learning option this year, school administrators, faculty, and staff in Henry County are working hard to make sure students have a safe environment in which to learn.
So far at least, it seems to be working.
“There’s a difference between outbreaks in the school and outbreaks in the community which cause outbreaks in the school,” said Nancy Bell, Public Information Officer with the West Piedmont Health District. “And there’s no evidence that any of our outbreaks originated at school.”
“Students are glad to be back, teachers are excited about having them, and of course parents are concerned about safety,” said Dr. Zebedee Talley, Martinsville City Schools Superintendent. “Safety is always going to be valued. The social-emotional learning for students has more of a priority here than learning, because if students and their families have emotional well-being, they’ll do well.”
Talley said Martinsville schools has various programs for counselling, including two hotlines the parents can all to deal with instructional issues or to have someone to talk to.
“Sometimes we get so involved with the academic areas that we forget that we’re actually dealing with people and families and homes, so we always want to be a caring division that’s focused not only on learning excellence, which we have, but also the social-emotional well-being of students,” said Talley
“We have had our share of quarantine.”
He added that the school system is in the process of creating an online dashboard with pertinent COVID-related data, like the one for Henry County Schools, which is updated weekly.
“We believe that that layer of transparency is important for the general community,” said Monica Hatchett, Director of Communications for Henry County Public Schools. However, “we can only share what’s reported to us.”
She noted that it’s important for families to tell a teacher, principal, or other school official if they have a positive case in the home, or are quarantining, so that schools can take appropriate action to protect others in the school.
She said that families who need to quarantine are being contacted directly via phone call.
Hatchett said that nearly 80 percent of county school staff members have been vaccinated, but only 20 percent of eligible students have received a vaccine.
“We are working to provide a vaccination clinic for our students in the coming weeks ahead” to increase that number, Hatchett said.
Both divisions require masks to be worn in school by everyone, regardless of vaccination status. Hatchett noted that, within the school setting, if a student is exposed to a positive case but they are masked, they may not have to quarantine.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said a mask requirement was reinstituted for all employees regardless of vaccination status.
“Society is better off if I wear a mask,” said Hall. “If I wear a mask and if I’m proven wrong that it’s not necessary, all I’ve done is cover half of my face. If other folks don’t wear a mask, they could potentially be putting others at risk. This is not about us. It’s not about me, it’s about the person next to us. Anything that we can do to assist in that effort, I think we need to do. It’s incumbent on us as decent human beings to do that.”
Masking is also required for all visitors at Sovah Health locations, including in the emergency waiting room area, said Dr. Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, Chief Medical Officer with Sovah Health. Once an emergency room patient is taken back to a room, one well visitor may accompany them.
“It is imperative that the visitor wear their mask. It must be fitted properly; they must stay in the room the entire time. If they are disruptive to the care of the patient or others or if they can’t maintain masking, they will be asked to depart our facility.”
Gunn-Nolan encouraged residents to not delay seeking medical care if necessary. Though wait times may be longer, patients will be seen and evaluated. Non-critical patients are encouraged to seek care from a primary care physician or urgent care rather than going to the emergency room.
The best way to protect against the spread of COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, because “vaccine is the number one prevention to help minimize risk of death for COVID-19,” said Gunn-Nolan. “We encourage everyone to get vaccinated. We don’t want to see anyone else fall victim to COVID-19 and it continues to happen.”
She emphasized that vaccines are free, readily available, and easily accessed within the community.
To find a local vaccination site, visit vaccine.gov. To learn more about the status of COVID-19 in the state and/or communities, visit vdh.virginia.gov.