Two COVID-19 Outbreaks Are Being Investigated In Arlington Schools

COVID-19 outbreak investigations are currently ongoing at Washington-Liberty High School and another unnamed Arlington public school.

The W-L investigation started after four students tested positive between March 23-31.

“Based on guidance from the [Arlington County Public Health Department], we quarantined all students and staff who were in close contact with any of the individuals who tested positive,” said a letter to families from Zachary Pope, APS’s director of emergency management, and Principal Tony Hall. “All health and safety protocols were being followed at school, which allowed W-L staff to respond quickly with ACPHD to prevent further transmission,” they said.

Arlington County Public Health Department spokeswoman Jessica Baxter confirmed that investigations were underway at two schools, but declined to name them.

Over the last couple of months, Arlington Public Schools expanded access to two days of in-person instruction a week across all grade levels. In that time, the school system has reported 84 COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

APS declined to answer questions about COVID-19 cases because “it is private health-related information,” according to spokesperson Frank Bellavia.

But once one case is confirmed in a classroom, the entire class is sent home for up to two weeks of virtual learning while contact tracing is conducted, according to APS guidelines. Deciding whether an entire school should go virtual requires working closely with ACPHD, the guidance says.

This approach to identifying and quarantining students and staff — much like the reopening discussion thus far — has drawn support from some and frustration from others, who see the policy affecting too many students on the periphery of a case.

Across the school system, APS has reported 63 positive cases and eight cases where information is “not available” among students since March, when most started returning to classrooms.

Among teachers — who returned in February — and other school employees, there have been 21 reported positive cases. Of those, 13 cases are among teachers and eight cases are among staff.

So far, the central APS office at Syphax Education Center and the school system’s transportation department, which operates school buses, have the highest number of cases, with four each.

Views about the school system’s reporting of and response to COVID-19 cases vary among School Board contenders and parents.

“I have really appreciated that APS is sharing data about COVID rates in the community and in schools so transparently via the APS and County COVID-19 Dashboards,” School Board hopeful Mary Kadera said. “I believe that APS is taking all the appropriate steps to keep staff and students safe in our school buildings, and I would urge them to clear waitlists and do all they can in the last weeks of this school year to expand in-person learning opportunities to as many students as possible.”

Meanwhile, some parents say the quarantine policy for classrooms is “overly broad,” said Miranda Turner, Kadera’s opponent for the School Board. She said she has heard from parents who want a more granular approach to determining who needs to quarantine.

Stephanie Rubin is one of those parents.

“My son was one of the students who was quarantined — even though he was never within 6 feet of the infected student,” she said. “Seating charts can show that most students in a class do not meet the CDC definition of ‘close contact,’ yet the county is willing to disrupt their lives and penalize these students for 14 days.”

Rubin added that her son can handle distance learning, but the policy also excludes him from all school-related activities, and he is in the middle of baseball tryouts at Yorktown High School.

Overall, 40 students tied to eight COVID-19 positive-students were excluded from in-person instruction last week, according to a chart from APS.

Smart Restart, a group advocating for a cautious approach to returning students to classrooms, said it is watching the data closely and urged APS to continue improving its COVID-19 reporting for the benefit of the community.

“So far, it seems like the hybrid model — with reduced occupancy, physical distancing, mask-wearing, increased ventilation, and vaccinated teachers — is not causing an epic spike in local cases, based on confirmed positive cases, although cases are likely to be significantly undercounted in kids, per local serology analysis,” the group said.

Smart Restart advised reducing time spent indoors, moving more activities and socializing — and all eating — outside.

Arlington Parents for Education, which is advocating for five-day-a-week in-person instruction, asked APS to revisit its quarantine policy.

“Policies that quarantine an entire classroom, without assessing actual close contact exposure, may result in overly conservative quarantine requirements that keep kids out of school (or discourage them from going in the first place),” APE said “APS should also encourage testing to either confirm or rule out cases, be transparent with affected persons and allow students to return to their classrooms as fast and safely as possible.”

Superintendent Francisco Durán will provide an update on how hybrid learning is going on Thursday as part of the School Board meeting.

Table (bottom) via APS