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APS brings athletics back early, changes Covid guidelines during surge in cases

Arlington County school bus (Photo courtesy Chris Rief)

(Updated at noon) Arlington Public Schools is bringing athletics back early and reducing quarantine periods, despite more than a thousand Covid cases reported among students and staff this past week.

Starting next week, the school system will adopt revised CDC guidance, Superintendent Francisco Durán wrote in an email to the school community Wednesday. The isolation period for staff members who test positive will be halved to five days. The new guidelines also reduced the quarantine period to five days for a student or staff member who is considered a close contact to someone who tested positive.

“Students who are exempt from quarantine (e.g., those with up-to-date vaccinations, are asymptomatic and are able to wear a mask) will be excluded and verified by Contact Tracers before being able to return to school,” Durán noted.

APS will still require a 10-day isolation period for students who test positive for COVID-19, despite the CDC’s recent change to guidelines allowing a five-day isolation for positive cases under certain conditions. That’s because APS is unable to ensure that “consistent physical distancing and mask protocols [are] in place at all times, including during meals.”

“Maintaining safe, consistent in-person learning is our priority,” Durán wrote. “APS will maintain in-person learning except in limited instances to address high transmission in a classroom or school. Switching any class or school to virtual learning–even for a short period of time–will be a last resort.”

There are 864 students and 183 employees who have tested positive for Covid over the past week, according to the APS Covid dashboard as of publication time. That compares to 56 positive student cases over a seven-day period just over a month ago, in early December.

Arlington is currently seeing its highest Covid hospitalization rate since January 2021. Nine people were hospitalized on Wednesday alone, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data. The seven-day moving average of daily hospitalizations is now just above four.

As teachers and community members expressed concerns about the surge in Covid cases over winter break, driven by the new Omicron variant, Durán committed to return in person. Last week’s snowstorms ended up cancelling school for the entire week, but students returned to classrooms on Monday.

While some in the community have urged more caution amid the Covid wave, others have advocated for schools and activities to remain open.

In a statement Monday, prior to Wednesday’s announcement, the pro-school-reopening group Arlington Parents for Education said that “APS should follow the CDC-recommended five days for isolations and quarantines instead of ten in order to significantly increase APS’ ability to staff schools and to reduce students’ days out of school.”

Arlington Parents for Education and more than 1,500 petition signers have also called for APS to resume athletic activities, which were “paused” for two weeks to start the new year, a move not mirrored by other local school systems.

In his email, Durán said that in-person athletics and extracurriculars returned early, on Wednesday, “following our current testing, vaccination and mask requirements.”

Only family members can watch events, Durán wrote in his email. Other limitations for spectators could apply based on facility.

The full message from Superintendent Durán is below.

Dear APS Families,

It is wonderful to have everyone back at school this week. This continues to be a challenging time due to the pandemic and the recent surge of COVID-19 cases.We have updated the website with frequently asked questions (FAQ) and current protocols.

Here are some updates on our protocols and other reminders as we all work together:

Thank You, Principals – This week is Virginia School Principal Appreciation Week, so please join me in thanking our outstanding principals on social media using #ThankAPSPrincipals. They have provided leadership to maintain open, welcoming schools and safe environments in a tumultuous time, and they work daily to resolve the unique challenges as guidance continues changing in this pandemic. We appreciate our principals!

In-Person Athletics and Extracurricular Activities Resume – All in-person athletics and extracurricular activities may resume effective today, Wed, Jan. 12, following our current testing, vaccination and mask requirements. Spectators for all athletic events will consist of family members, and limitations may be implemented based on a school’s facility capacity. The pause was due to the significant surge in positive cases among athletes and helped us to interrupt the chain of transmission and to ensure the continuity of education with the spread of COVID-19 as students returned from the break.  APS will continue to closely monitor the situation and evaluate activities as needed.

COVID Response – NEW Guidance Regarding Quarantine and Isolation – Effective Mon, Jan. 17, APS will adopt the CDC’s revised guidance on quarantine and isolation, as follows:

  • APS will reduce the quarantine period for students and staff to five days. Students who are exempt from quarantine (e.g., those with up-to-date vaccinations, are asymptomatic and are able to wear a mask) will be excluded and verified by Contact Tracers before being able to return to school. (Note: Quarantine keeps someone who was in close contact with COVID-19 away from others. View full definition.)
  • APS will reduce the isolation period for staff to five days. (Note: Isolation keeps those who test positive for COVID-19 away from others, even in their own home. View full definition.)
  • APS will maintain current 10-day isolation period for students with COVID-19; this is per CDC guidance that the reduced timeframe be implemented for students only with consistent physical distancing and mask protocols in place at all times, including during meals. Since we cannot maintain distancing consistently, per CDC, APS will maintain 10 days isolation for students with COVID-19.

Requirements to Return After Isolation: Please note the requirements for students to return:

  • Complete 10 days of isolation from symptom onset or since testing positive (day test administered), whichever is first; AND
  • Be fever free for at least 24 hours without fever-reducing medication.

Please view our webpage outlining the quarantine and return guidance for students who are identified as close contacts through school-related exposures.

Keeping Schools Open Amid the Surge – Maintaining safe, consistent in-person learning is our priority. APS will maintain in-person learning except in limited instances to address high transmission in a classroom or school. Switching any class or school to virtual learning–even for a short period of time–will be a last resort. We will make those decisions on a case-by-case basis based on the best available information and the guidance of Arlington County Public Health Division professionals. Factors we consider include the following:

  • The number of students and staff who have tested positive;
  • The number of students in quarantine; the number of staff absent for COVID-related reasons; and
  • The level of transmission of the virus in the classroom or school.

We are ready to pivot, when needed, to deliver instruction remotely in those instances, and have plans to provide instruction to individual students in quarantine or isolation. Those plans are on the website.

Weekly In-School Testing: We are aware there are some transition issues with the new Virginia Department of Health (VDH) vendor for surveillance testing. We have spoken with VDH and the vendor directly as they work to address the issues. We thank everyone who has opted in for this testing and appreciate your understanding during the transition.

We Are in This Together – We, like many school systems, are facing staffing challenges due to COVID. We are working to recruit more subs and are deploying more central office staff to schools to help substitute so our schools can open. Help us spread the word or apply online to support students and schools. Keep your student(s) home from school if they don’t feel well and complete the Qualtrics health screener questions daily.

We are all in this together as a community, and it will take all of us to keep our schools open. Thank you for your support of APS, our students, and our excellent teachers and staff.

Sincerely,

Dr. Francisco Durán
Superintendent

Photo courtesy Chris Rief

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