January 8, 2021: Charlottesville School Board votes on March 8 as planning date for gradual return to in-person instruction; Albemarle Supervisors look forward to 2021

  
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On today’s show:

  • Charlottesville School Board debates school return in long discussion

  • University of Virginia Health System briefs the media on vaccine 

  • Albemarle Board of Supervisors look ahead to 2021

*

Today marks the third day in a row where the Virginia Department of Health has reported over 5,000 new cases of COVID, with a figure of 5,238 cases. The percent positivity has decreased slightly to 16.7. In the Blue Ridge Health District there are another 185 cases, the third day in a row that there have been more 150 cases. Today that’s 80 cases in Albemarle, 34 in Charlottesville, 19 from both Fluvanna and Greene, 21 from Louisa and 12 from Nelson. 

The University of Virginia Health System gave an update this afternoon on COVID in the community. Dr. Costi Sifri is the system’s director of hospital epidemiology. 

“We are seeing increasing rates of cases in the community that is impacting admissions,” Dr. Sifri said. “This is a statewide phenomenon.”

We’ll have more from that briefing in a moment. 

*

The Charlottesville School Board voted 4-3 last night to direct staff to plan for a return to face-to-face education on March 8, though a final decision would still depend on whether the current COVID surge has abated. They were shown metrics from Dr. Beth Baptist, the director’s school system. 

“Right now everything is in an upward trend,” Baptist said. “It is better for Charlottesville and Albemarle, our numbers are less. But we have to remember that Charlottesville is not an island. We have people coming in and out every day and there’s so much movement.” 

Dr. Baptist noted that teachers and staff will be eligible for vaccines in Phase 1B and surveys will go out soon to determine how many doses will be needed. The earliest they can be administered will be at least early spring, according to a release sent out yesterday by the Blue Ridge Health District. Logistics are being worked out now.

“We will certainly work with staff that based on the time of their appointments to have coverage if needed to go get the shots,” Baptist said. “We’ll encourage them to get the shots. We are not going to make anybody take the shot but if someone doesn’t take the shot and we have an outbreak or some problem within the school system we may have to have them not be in the building.”

In December, the board gave staff direction to proceed with a limited opening on for face-to-face instruction for pre-K through elementary school beginning on January 19. Last night, Superintendent Rosa Atkins recommended pushing back the start date to February 22. (materials)

“During that time we would hope to see the community transmission rate be decreasing, start to decrease at a significant decline,” Atkins said. “We also hope during that time to get more information about the vaccinations.”

Atkins said the final decision would be made at the School Board meeting in February. School Board member Jennifer McKeever disagreed with the recommendation. 

“I think that February 22 is far too soon,” McKeever said. 

School Board Member Lashundra Bryson Morsberger called for a halt to planning for now due to the winter. 

“Everyone is in just a world of anxiety every time we have these meetings and the dates are very arbitrary at this point,” Bryson Morsberger said. “”We’re in the middle of a surge and I think we just need to have a pause all the dates. The date to go back in February, we’re in the surge. I just think we need to let it settle for a while, let the new administration come in. Let the teachers get the vaccine and the people who are coming into contact with students get the vaccine.”

School Board Member Sherry Kraft said she wasn’t ready yet to give up on in-person learning for some part of the third quarter of the year, which begins on February 1. She had a positive feeling after watching Governor Ralph Northam talk about Phase 1B on Wednesday. 

“I think the vaccines are such a game changer and we’re not exactly sure about the timing of that,” Kraft said. “I felt like there was a really good chance that the process was going to move faster.”

(A Virginia Department of Health press release went out at 4:36 p.m. today with more information on Phase1B, stating it would begin in some health districts beginning this Monday. See below for more.)

School Board Member Juandiego Wade said he supported the February 22 date as well as the idea of some students going back to school as soon as possible. 

“The virtual is just not working with a lot of our students and we’re doing what we can and I don’t like what we’re doing as far as setting a date and saying we’ll look at it and make a decision but I don’t see any other option,” Wade said. 

School Board James Bryant also supported planning for the February 22 date. 

“It could very well be February, it could very well not be based on the metrics,” Bryant said. 

School Board Member Leah Puryear was on the same page. 

“A little bit over four weeks from now, we will meet again and if the metrics have changed, the 22nd I think was the date given may still be able to work, but if we’re in the 15 percent range it won’t work,” Puryear said. 

However, McKeever said the February 22 date was arbitrary and was causing anxiety in the community. 

“February 22 is when the projection, the governor’s projection is to be the peak of this surge,” McKeeker said. “I don’t know why we’re going to continue to have our staff live in anxiety about when we’re going back to school.”

Superintendent Atkins said she was growing increasingly concerned about the welfare of students who are falling behind. 

“Virtual is working for some students but there are also students that virtual is not working for, especially when you get to our high school,” Atkins said. “We have students that we are going to lose in our high schools because they are not engaged right now.” 

Atkins said having no specific date to plan for would be very difficult for planning purposes. Eventually, a motion was made to move the planning date to March 8. After a long discussion, they took a vote. Bryant, Wade, Kraft and Puryear voted yes. The others voted no. 

*

Speaking of vaccines, that was a major topic at this afternoon’s briefing with UVA Health officials. We just heard how teachers are within Phase1B, which has not yet happened.  Dr. Reid Adams is UVA Health’s chief medical officer. He said Phase 1A has been underway for a few weeks with a focus on the most vulnerable population and health-care providers.

“Who are doing health care work and working in medical systems and then of course residents of long-term care facilities, and the latter part is being done through contracts with pharmacies,” Reid said. “We have vaccinated about 7,500 of our employees to date and this week we’re starting to start to provide our initial bolus of team members’ second dose of vaccine.”

Reid said UVA has been getting more shipments of vaccine and has ramped up capacity. He said the Blue Ridge Health District is coordinating doses for other health care workers. 

“There is a well-publicized effort to provide vaccines for healthcare workers who are not part of health care systems or hospitals in our are that is occurring on Hydraulic Road,” Sifri said. “As we work through health care providers we will start to see that vaccination of first responders, like fire, police, people who because of their work are not able to socially isolate and that likely will be occurring in those community forums and UVA Health is working now to support those efforts.” 

Dr. Sifri said UVA has moved fast to increase its internal capacity. 

“When we received the first vaccines which I believe were on December 15, we had a capacity to provide vaccines to about 175 or our employees on a daily basis,” Dr. Sifri said. “That’s now increased to over 900, nearly 1,000 people a day.”

However, the actual numbers may vary. Dr. Sifri said he thought community vaccination efforts will have similar increases as they gain more experience. 

“Governor Northam’s announcement this week sort of gave that charge and he talked about some of the efforts that they are entertaining and working towards as this vaccine moves forward including looking at the National Guard as part of that effort,” Dr. Sifri said. 

In the next installment of this program, we’ll hear from Dr. Fauci, who spoke Friday to a group of faith leaders about the vaccine. 

As this newsletter was about to be sent out, the Virginia Department of Health announced that some localities would begin Phase1B on Monday. Yesterday, a release from the Blue Ridge Health District had put the timetable to “early spring.”

Here’s a large section from today’s release.

“While many localities remain focused on 1a vaccinations, 11 health districts will begin gradually adding vaccination opportunities for the following groups: frontline essential workers, people age 75 and older, and people living in correctional facilities, homeless shelters or migrant labor camps. Overlap of vaccination of groups is needed to ensure people are vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

The advance districts do not include anything in the Blue Ridge Health District. The VDH release states that all health districts should begin Phase1B by the end of January.

“It will take several weeks to months to vaccinate Virginians who fall into Phase 1b,” the release continues. “The ability to schedule appointments will depend on the supply of vaccine available.” (VDH Phase1B guidelines)

*

Just as a violent insurrection against the U.S. Capitol was fanned by the sitting U.S. president on Wednesday afternoon, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors met for its first meeting of the year and appointed Ned Gallaway to a third year as Chair. Unlike Charlottesville, the Board appoints its presiding officer every year. 

Each Supervisor gave thoughts about what they hope 2021 will be like. Supervisor Diantha McKeel represents the Jack Jouett District and her second term is up at the beginning of the year. She made these comments before the moment of silence. 

“We now have 8 million people who have moved into poverty,” McKeel said. “We have 90 million people who have no health insurance. One in six adults are going hungry. One in four children are going hungry and in the United States right now we’re losing someone to COVID every 30 seconds. 

Supervisor Ann Mallek represents the White Hall District and she gave these remarks which supports Albemarle government action to respond to the pandemic. 

“While we have many more obstacles in our future from COVID-19 I am confident that we will avoid chaos, provide services and earn the confidence of our citizens,” Mallek said. “I know there is a long to-do list already and our work plan is overflowing but there are high-priority program issues I  hope we will all think about and give attention to in 2021.”

These include completion of the county’s Housing Albemarle plan, finding ways to pay for infrastructure to support urban growth, and connecting the Climate Action Plan with action steps including the county’s own procurement policy. 

“If we take a cradle to cradle approach and get thorough documentation, not information from sales people, we will make much better decisions,” Mallek said. 

Supervisor Donna Price of the Scottsville District is in the second year of her first term. She said the pandemic will continue to lead to hardships for Albemarle residents. Price listed three priorities. 

“The first one is expanding broadband and that includes revising our cell tower policies in order to ensure that we can expand availability and access,” Price said. “On top of everything we have to look at equity and I’ve said before, equity must be prospective not retrospective. And every decision the county makes must be made with a view towards equity.”

Price’s third priority is to find a way to find locations in the county where “convenience centers” can be built to allow residents to drop off solid waste for disposal or recycling. 

“As I travel to neighboring counties I see that virtually all of them have no fee convenience centers,” Price said. “We have no convenience centers in Albemarle County.” 

Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley is in her second year of her first term representing the Rivanna District. She said education is a priority as the pandemic continues. 

“We need to do something with our schools,” LaPisto-Kirtley said. “I’m hoping that the school district will figure out a way to make up for lost time for our children. That’s the basis of our democracy. We need to have an outstanding educational system for everybody.” 

Supervisor Liz Palmer is in the final year of her second term in the Samuel Miller District. The pandemic is a focus. 

“And I hope that we can continue to do the great job that we have been doing in masking and social distancing in spite of the spike that is going on now,” Palmer said. 

Gallaway is in the final year of his first term representing the Rio District. He thanked the Board clerk and her staff for their work in helping government meetings continue during the pandemic. 

“I know that work is going to continue and we don’t really know when that’s going to end but I know that the Board members are confident that we will continue to be able to provide services,” Gallaway said. 

We’ll have more from the Albemarle meeting in a future installment of the show. 


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