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Amid changing COVID rules, FCPS discusses mandating vaccines for all students later this year

McNair Elementary School students pick up lunch on their first day of school for the 2021-2022 academic year (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is revising a number of procedures around COVID-19 contact tracing, quarantining, and pausing, even as it maintains that case numbers remain proportionally very low in schools.

School officials are actively exploring their options for expanding student vaccination requirements, including a possible mandate once the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorize it for kids 5 and older, which could happen as early as the end of October.

However, FCPS would have to wait for the Virginia General Assembly to act before it can require COVID-19 vaccinations for all students under state law, which gives authority for determining mandatory school immunizations to the legislature and a state health regulatory board.

“If I had [the power to do this], I’d recommend right now to this board mandatory vaccinations for our students upon full authorization from the FDA,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said at a school board work session yesterday (Tuesday). “If we have the burden of educating kids, it should be determined by officials closest to schools who should be vaccinated and not vaccinated and not wait for the state to give us permission to do so.”

At the moment, officials said they are in talks with legal counsel about expanding the existing vaccine mandate for high school student athletes to other secondary school extracurricular activities, such as theater programs.

According to Brabrand’s presentation to the school board, 0.33% of staff, students, and visitors — 677 individuals in total — reported testing positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 13 to Sept. 15. Only 24 cases involved transmission within one of the 198 schools and offices in the county, Brabrand said.

Since Aug. 1, 936 cases have been reported to FCPS, according to the school system’s case dashboard. Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu told the Board of Supervisors at a health and human services committee meeting yesterday that the county is seeing 30 to 40 cases among students per day on average, with some days going as high as 50 cases.

While Addo-Ayensu also said the majority of transmission has occurred in the general community, not in schools, each case has a ripple effect as additional staff and students who might have been exposed to the virus have been subjected to isolation, quarantine, or in-person learning pauses.

Between Aug. 13 and Sept. 15, 2,905 students — or 1.6% of the student body — have been paused, meaning they were COVID positive or a potential close contact and had to remain out of school during contact-tracing investigations. Nearly half were elementary school students.

1.8% of staff, or 502 individuals, have been paused as well during that time period.

“We know the impact of the pause…is significant,” Brabrand said. “We are working with health partners and the Fairfax County Health Department to minimize the length of time that students are out, while maintaining a safe environment.”

In addition, the time it takes to complete contact tracing and “close” a case has increased significantly over the last month as more cases have come in, keeping more students out of school longer.

In mid-August, most cases were closed within four days with an average of 2.5 days. Now, in mid-September, the average duration has jumped to nearly 10 days, with 78 cases taking 12 days or longer, according to data provided by FCPS.

To speed up the process, FCPS has instituted several measures, including hiring individuals to help with COVID management and implementing a vaccination verification survey intended to let students who are both asymptomatic and vaccinated return to classes sooner.

Schools no longer need to provide seating charts and other information to the county health department, which has also started notifying families about pauses via both email and phone after communication issues led some students to break COVID-19 protocols.

FCPS officials also confirmed that they’re developing new methods to support students when they are being paused, including one-on-one check-ins every 48 hours and live streaming lessons.

A number of school board members raised concerns about the extra work this will create for staff and teachers on top of the other challenges that have emerged with the resumption of five days of in-person  learning.

Brabrand responded that these processes should hopefully be only temporary as school and health staff work to shorten the length of contact-tracing investigations.

“If we are in the situation we are [currently] in at the end of the calendar year, then we will need to revisit our assumptions about how we are operating as a school district,” he said when asked about calls for more virtual learning. “We are back in-person and we are doing all we can to stay, but we need to see about the results over the last few months to inform additional General Assembly action.”

In terms of vaccination rates, 87% of staff responded a survey from FCPS about their vaccination status. 96.8% of respondents said they are vaccinated.

FCPS is requiring all employees to get vaccinated by late October.

About 83.5% of residents 12 to 17 years old have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to health department data, but FCPS confirmed to FFXnow that it doesn’t currently have statistics specifically for its students.

FCPS didn’t immediately respond when asked if it plans to survey parents and students like it did for staff.

“Education as we know it will forever change if we can’t get our kids and staff vaccinated,” Brabrand said at the work session.”I strongly believe that vaccination is going to be the way out of this pandemic.”

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