By Callie Hietala
The “pretty scary” numbers recently reflected on the Henry County school division’s COVID-19 dashboard are largely related students being out for winter break.
Monica Hatchett, director of communications for the school system, told members of the Henry County School Board at a January meeting that the increase in cases “would not have been school-related.”
She said the system expects the numbers to level off as after every other break.
The division’s COVID-19 dashboard indicated that 230 positive COVID cases and 629 quarantines have been reported across the school system between Dec. 17 and Jan. 7.
Those numbers include 56 new staff cases and 174 new student cases. The two high schools, Bassett and Magna Vista, have the highest numbers, with 37 and 39 positive cases and 84 and 89 quarantines, respectively.
“Before the break, we had really controlled the spread of the pandemic,” Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said. “We had very few students and staff members that were out with COVID exposure or positive test results. Obviously, in our community, it’s spreading rampantly right now. Our numbers are very high.
“Exploding” would be the most accurate word to describe the sharp increase, Strayer said, adding that she hopes “once we get back in school, we can get our numbers to go down.”
Although more buildings in the system reported cases Thursday than on Monday, Hatchett said “each building’s case numbers are lower than they were on Monday and Tuesday. We know that our mitigation strategies do work.”
When students are in school, Hatchett said they are encouraged to wash their hands. Additionally, buildings are regularly sanitized, and COVID protocols are followed.
“It is helping to alleviate some of” the spread, she said.
An important part of the school system’s plan to mitigate the spread is a robust testing program, Strayer said.
Hatchett said the division has free, self-administered Binax COVID tests for staff, students, and their families. Anyone who is symptomatic and would like to use one of the tests may call the school’s nurse line to receive one. Test results must be reported to the respective school.
The tests are paid for through the grant-funded Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance (ViSSTA) testing program.
Strayer credited the testing kits with helping to keep caseloads down.
“That’s why, I think, when we were leaving school in December, we had so few cases and we really had a handle on it. We’re hoping to get back to that,” she said.
The school system is preparing to order batch of tests, Hatchett said, and told the board it received “quite a number” of tests for the fall, but many were not distributed. As a result, “far fewer” were ordered than officials now believe will be needed, hence the need for a second order.
Hatchett explained that the school system will phase in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) updated guidelines, which now reflect a 5-day quarantine period “for certain positive cases or exposures.”
The new guidelines will begin applying to staff the week of Jan. 10 and to students the following week, she added.
Anyone who has gotten a booster or who received a COVID-19 vaccine in the last 6 months would be asked to quarantine for five days versus the 10 to 14 days for anyone who is unvaccinated, Hatchett said. Those who quarantine for five days must stringently follow mask-wearing guidelines upon their return.
In other matters, the board:
*Elected Thomas Auker of the Blackberry District and Teddy Martin of the Reed Creek District chairman and vice-chairman. (See related story.)
*Adopted the 2022 Code of Conduct for school board members.
*Appointed Dr. David Scott, assistant superintendent for operations and administrative services, as superintendent designee to attend meetings of the board in the absence of the superintendent.
*Set its meeting dates for 2022: Feb. 3 (9 a.m.), March 3 (6 p.m.), April 7 (9 a.m.), May 5 (6 p.m.), June 9 (9 a.m.), July 14 (9 a.m.), Aug. 4 (9 a.m.), Sept. 1 (6 p.m.), Oct. 6 (6 p.m.), Nov. 3 (9 a.m.), Dec. 1 (6 p.m.), Jan. 5, 2023 (6 p.m.).
*Read a proclamation from Gov. Ralph Northam recognizing Jan. 8-14 as Virginia School Principal Appreciation Week.
*Cancelled the Jan. 20 meeting for public hearing on budget priorities. and rescheduled it for 5 p.m. on Feb. 17.
*Approved the consent agenda.
*Approved 2022-2023 school year calendar.
*Approved the 2022-2023 high school and middle school programs of study.
*Awarded a $244,923 Intranet services contract to GCR Telecommunications, Inc. The funds qualify for a 90 percent ($220,430.70) reimbursement from federal e-Rate funding, meaning the school division is responsible for $24,492.30, which will be paid through a FY22 Technology State Reimbursement grant.
*Awarded a $56,400 internet services contract to GCR Telecommunications, Inc. The funds qualify for a 90 percent ($50,760) reimbursement from federal e-Rate funding. The school division is responsible for $5,640 which will be paid through a FY22 Technology State Reimbursement grant.
*Approved a School Bus Driver Incentive Grant Program funded through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER II) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (CRRSA Act ESSER II). The school system is eligible for an additional estimated $50,000 of reimbursable funds to use for recruitment and retention of bus drivers.
Scott said the grant allows for a one-time retention bonus for bus drivers. A second part of the grant will pay third-party trainers for people coming to them to earn a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), while a third part will fund sign-on bonuses for those who come to the school system to earn a CDL, if they are hired as a driver by the school system. Currently, Scott said, that while some come to the schools for CDL licensing, “that does not materialize as a hire for us.” He said the biggest cost to a perspective driver is the time spent earning the CDL.
The appropriation will be forwarded to the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
*Approved an additional appropriation of $294,248 to the School Nutrition budget for USDA Emergency Operation Costs. The request will be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors.
*Approved the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund for Homeless Children and Youth (ARP-HCY) grant of $42,450.82. The funds are specifically targeted to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness.
*Heard Strayer’s monthly highlights report.