CHARLES TOWN — Jefferson County’s public schools received a green light Saturday to adopt the least restrictive COVID protocols, a statistical measure indicating that coronavirus infections had dropped during the previous week.
Now, staff and students in grades 6 through 12 are required to wear face coverings only on buses and in settings where social distancing can’t be maintained. Since county classrooms reopened on Sept. 8, the school system had previously been following cautionary code yellow protocols — one of five possible status codes depending on local infection rates — representing an “increased community transmission” status.
Meanwhile, county health officials have been evaluating whether any students and staff might need to be temporarily quarantined at home after a teacher and two other school staff contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Since a Washington High teacher tested positive for COVID early last week, two other school staff also tested positive, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson reported.
Gibson did not say where the two latest school staff members work or whether they were classroom teachers. She did say those staff members contracted the virus outside the school system’s workplace.
For those three positive COVID cases, the Jefferson County Health Department’s contact tracing and quarantine procedures were put into gear to stem the spread of the virus through the school system.
Dr. Terrence Reidy, the medical officer for the health departments in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties, said the particular circumstances involved with every COVID infection determine what precautions county health officials take.
“We just use our best judgment, but in each of these things, we’re having lots of discussion about what actually were the circumstances,” he said. “Each case is different.”
The preventive actions health officials may take, Reidy said, would depend, at least in part, not just how long the infected staff members interacted with students and other staff but also whether the people involved followed the school system’s coronavirus safety protocols when they were together.
Brief, close contact with someone infected with the virus normally wouldn’t require quarantining anyone, Reidy said. Merely walking by someone in the hallway who is infected — “that’s not a high-risk situation,” he explained.
But the COVID safety guidelines schools are requiring aren’t foolproof. Some people can become infected even if they’re careful to follow the protocols, Reidy said.
During a school board meeting on Monday that included a coronavirus operational status update, Gibson pointed out the school system, as the county’s largest employer with more than 1,000 staff members, generated the largest concentration of people in the county, she said.
Given the overall number of teachers and students in schools now, it’s not surprising that any had tested positive for COVID-19 by now, Reidy said. More infections are likely to surface, he added.
Multiple cases could also surface at a single school even if students and staff diligently follow safety protocols, Reidy said.
“So if one school has a bunch of kids get it,” he explained, “that’s as much by chance that someone happened to have it at that school.”
As of Monday, Jefferson County had 36 known active coronavirus infections, about 0.06 percent of the county’s population, according to the health department. No county resident was reported hospitalized from an infection.
However, Reidy cautioned that about 40 percent of the people who become infected don’t show symptoms, making the true number of infections currently unknowable.
“It would be great if there weren’t any [other teachers, students or school staff infected by the virus], but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are,” he said.
The school system’s coronavirus safety policies bar students or staff directly exposed to someone with COVID-19 from returning to class without an evaluation from the county health department.
Any quarantine the health department imposes on students and staff will prevent those persons from returning to school unless they obtain a negative COVID-19 test, receive permission from a physician or complete a quarantine lasting at least 14 days.
Quarantined students would continue their class studies online if they remain healthy, as more than 3,000 students are already voluntarily doing full time for the first half of the school year.
“Every time someone’s infected we want to evaluate them, and then, if they are infected, to isolate them and quarantine the close contacts,” Reidy said. “We do that with workplaces and churches and other places. So this is the same principle.”
Reidy said reopening schools needed to happen. School days and school routines are too important to the well being of children, particularly those who thrive on social interaction with their peers, he said.
“For some people, the school system gives them developmental and safety opportunities they can’t have at home,” he said.
Moreover, as the circumstances behind the school system’s current known infections show, schools are just one public environment where the coronavirus has the potential to spread. There are increasingly more places where people could be infected now, he said
“You could pick your events,” Reidy said. “There are many things that are shut down, but there are also many things that are open that kids and adults and teachers would be going to otherwise.”
“I would rather keep schools open and bars shut,” he added. “I would rather have schools open and spectator sports completely stopped.”
State and local health officials, along with state education officials, directed many of the infection protocols school systems across West Virginia adopted, including Jefferson County Schools.
“The schools are under the same guidelines and they’re being looked at by the same administrators,” Reidy said. “The policies are pretty much the same.”
Meanwhile, Reidy urged citizens and families to continue to expect and accept some lifestyle adjustments until a vaccine is developed for the virus and made widely available.
“What we have to do is figure out a new way of doing many things we’ve done before, and we are,” he said. “We’re going to keep trying things and adjust them to try and make it better.”