Should Fairfax County Schools Switch to In-Person Classes?

Fairfax County switched to a virtual environment back in March of last year. The county had about 10 confirmed COVID cases during that time. During the week of Labor Day in September, Fairfax county was seeing on average 70 new COVID cases per day. Fairfax county public schools opted stay virtual. Now, school officials are once again planning for a return to in-person instruction some time this coming March. Today, the county is reporting more than 250 new COVID cases. There is no doubt that current COVID transmission in the county sits at a high alarming level. The situation is not better compared to either March or September last year. 

Above copied from
Fairfax Health District

The above graph clearly shows that COVID case counts in the county are at their highest level, higher than last April, and much higher than last September. Experts are worried about variants from Brazil, South Africa and Britain. With the United States leading the world in number of COVID confirmed cases, there is no question that there are probably a lot more variants originating from the United States.

Switching from in-person to virtual and vice-versa is not seamless. Switching is stressful to both teachers and students since a different environment always requires adjustments. Thus, unless it is clear that another switch is not forthcoming, it is advantageous to stay in the same mode for the remaining months of the school year. With the current state of COVID transmission in the community, returning to and staying in in-person classes is not supported. 

Evidence regarding school transmission of the virus is not solid. Although there are published reports of low transmission: North Carolina and Wisconsin, there are reports of outbreaks originating from schools: Israel. Vaccines are currently being administered, but this will require months before the community reaches herd immunity. 

Decisions made today can help ensure safe operation of schools and provide critical services to children and adolescents in the US. Some of these decisions may be difficult. They include a commitment to implement community-based policies that reduce transmission when SARS-CoV-2 incidence is high (eg, by restricting indoor dining at restaurants), and school-based policies to postpone school-related activities that can increase risk of in-school transmission (eg, indoor sports practice or competition). With 2 vaccines now being distributed under Emergency Use Authorizations and more vaccine options anticipated to be available in the coming months, there is much hope on the horizon for a safer environment for schools and school-related athletic activities during the 2021/22 school year. Committing today to policies that prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in communities and in schools will help ensure the future social and academic welfare of all students and their education.

The above correctly notes that returning to in-person classes requires a "commitment to implement community-based policies that reduce transmission when SARS-CoV-2 incidence is high". We do not currently have that commitment. And most importantly, what we do now will decide what we can do in the next school year. Making the wrong decision can easily prolong the pandemic and jeopardize our chances of students returning to in-person classes this coming Fall.