Goalposts keep shifting in FCPS’ in-person plans

A+transmission+electron+micrograph+of+COVID-19+cells+from+a+patient.

Courtesy of NIAID (National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases) via Flickr

A transmission electron micrograph of COVID-19 cells from a patient.

Joseph Triolo, News Editor

As the nation continues to grapple with such a catastrophic event as COVID-19, school systems, too, must figure out the ropes. In FCPS, the metrics used to indicate a safe reopening of in-person instruction seem to continuously shift when the threshold is crossed.

Dr. Brabrand initially set the COVID-19 percent positivity threshold at 5% but increased it to 10% after the county reached 6.4% positivity. FCPS and Dr. Brabrand’s office was contacted for comment but has yet to respond.

The FCHD (Fairfax County Health Department), however, reports that “[t]he Fairfax County Health Department has been working closely with our schools to provide appropriate guidance on the decisions and operational needs for in-person learning.” Communicable Disease Section Chief Shawn Kiernan also states, “Although the local health department provides public health guidance and considerations for the opening, the decisions on re-opening are ultimately made by the superintendent and school board.” 

“Positivity % thresholds are only one data point that we use to measure local activity. It is very hard to say what is a ‘bad’ positivity threshold if you don’t know how many people are being tested,” said Kiernan. “In general, higher % levels are worse, especially if you are testing a significant proportion of your population.” Current COVID-19 testing in Fairfax County has been steadily climbing and is currently at an all-time high.

The VDH (Virginia Department of Health) dashboard for schools, which uses data from the CDC, indicates a 5%-8% positivity as a “moderate risk” of transmission, while a 10%+ indicates a “highest risk” of transmission, their highest indicator. 

As of November 18, every VDH metric is at either moderate or highest risk of transmission except hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. The FCPS move to increase the percent positivity threshold from 5% to 10%  may also appear contradictory to guidance from health departments who recommend that a 5% positivity shows that an area is experiencing an outbreak. The increase may also seem odd to some due to both NY and MA electing to use 3% positivity when deciding whether to close in-person instruction or not. Each area has comparable school districts in size to FCPS. 

FCPS’ goal is to aim for six-foot social distancing which Kiernan defines as “keeping a safe space between yourself and other people who are not from your household.” He further instructs that to practice social distancing “stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces” because “COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within 6 feet) for a prolonged period of time.” FCPS has warned that this spacing  may not always be possible, and that there also was no guarantee of social distancing in special education classes. Both the superintendent and FCPS’ media relations office were contacted; neither has responded.

During the writing of this article, FCPS made another major change to their return to in-person learning plan. “In making determinations regarding in-person instruction, FCPS will consider the first two (2) CDC Core Indicators: 1) number of cases per 100,000 persons and 2) the percent positivity in the last 14 days,” reads their announcement. “For a group to BEGIN in-person instruction: The established thresholds for the group must be met for BOTH the number of cases per 100,000 persons and the percent positivity for seven (7) consecutive calendar days.” Following the new guidance, it was announced on Monday that due to our high new cases per 100,000 people that cohort five would not return in person until at least December 1. The announcement also explained that in order to stay in in-person learning, neither the percent positivity rates nor the cases per 100,000 people could surpass the current threshold for seven straight days. If the thresholds are not met, the groups would have to return to distance learning. 

All of these moves come as Fairfax County is currently experiencing a large surge similar to the numbers from April, the peak of COVID-19 in Fairfax County.