After first COVID case at Spotswood, school leaders to meet with health officials about ‘next step’

UPDATED 5:03 p.m., Sept. 17, with follow-up information from Superintendent Michael Richards about Spotswood reopening Monday.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The first case of COVID-19 among Spotswood Elementary School staff has been confirmed by the Central Shenandoah Health District, and two other employees had to be tested results, Superintendent Michael Richards told The Citizen on Tuesday. 

No other staff or students in any other school buildings have reported symptoms thus far. 

Richards and Harrisonburg City Public Schools staff will meet with health officials Wednesday, and “they will advise us on what our next step is,” he said.

Richards said Thursday in a follow-up that, after taking with health officials, Spotswood would re-open Monday with “selective quarantining,” and those who will need to quarantine will receive phone calls notifying them. Both of the other employees who were tested were negative for COVID-19, he said.

As the Daily News-Record and WHSV reported on Monday, the division closed the elementary school for the week while the first employee’s test was still being processed.

Only about 10% of city students have been attending school in person – a portion of English language learners and those with special education needs – with the rest attending school virtually for the time being. 

Richards told The Citizen that the schools have provided contact information the health district requested for their contact tracing, but due to privacy laws, school officials don’t know who has been advised to quarantine or get tested. 

This first confirmed case among public school staff comes as Harrisonburg as a whole is making national news for its spike in coronavirus cases. Forbes reported Sept. 11 that, of the 25 worst outbreaks in the U.S. over the past two weeks, 19 are in college towns – with Harrisonburg and James Madison University “topping the list” at 1,562 cases per 100,000 people. The New York Times ran a piece on Monday detailing the rapidly accumulating cases at James Madison University and college students’ fears and criticisms. 

Natalie Duncan, a special education teacher, was already working from home this school year due to underlying health conditions.

She said in an email to The Citizen she’s “been very pleased with how HCPS has been prioritizing the health and safety of students and teachers throughout this pandemic.”

Besides the situation at Spotswood, the start of the semester is “going very well,” Richards said, with schools reporting good attendance for synchronous learning sessions, and checking in personally with any students who have not been logging on for those sessions.

The biggest challenge so far has been making sure all families in the city have reliable internet access, Richards said. They’ve had to move some “mega-wifi hotspots,” which are installed in vehicles, to different areas of the city, including one to the Second Home Childcare Center. The division also provided about 50 personal hotspots — devices about the size of a pager which operate like mobile hotspots on a cell phone — to other families.

The Harrisonburg School Board was scheduled to hold a work session on Tuesday, but due to technical difficulties, had to postpone the meeting. At press time that date had not yet been announced.

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