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Avula Delivers Health Update to Richmond School Board

screenshot of video
Dr. Danny Avula gave a sobering update on COVID-19 in Central Virginia at a Richmond City School Board Meeting. "This peak back in June was the highest we have seen our case rates get during this pandemic. We had a second peak at the end of August and beginning of September that neared it. Now we are facing a third peak, where we're not quite where we were in June -- but I actually anticipate we may get there." (Screenshot from Zoom meeting)

As COVID-19 cases rise throughout the commonwealth and local school districts debate returning to the classroom, Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond and Henrico health departments, gave an update Monday to the Richmond School Board.

Avula said the new COVID-19 vaccines will likely not be widely available to the public any time soon, and districts should not count on a vaccine as the solution.

“They’ve only done adult testing to this point,” Avula said. “We will probably have to wait another three to four months to see any preliminary data around safety in kids.”

He said cases in schools do not drive community transmission, but rather, they reflect the state of the virus in the community. 

If students are to come back to the classroom, Avula recommends bringing younger students first, before middle and high schoolers. This describes the route Chesterfield schools took, and also the plan at Henrico schools, which was recently delayed

“We see data regularly that shows that kids can clearly get COVID, and they can transmit COVID. The younger you are, the less likely that is to be the case. Younger kids under 10 seem to be about 50% less susceptible to get the disease,” Avula said.

After the doctor’s presentation, school board members Kenya Gibson and Scott Barlow reaffirmed their stances in favor of fully virtual learning for the immediate future. 

“I’m really skeptical about the idea of returning back in any significant manner at the beginning of the next semester. I realize my say on this kind of ends next month, but my impression at this point is that I don’t intend to vote for any kind of significant return,” Barlow said.

Gibson said the district is not even ready to consider a hybrid model of instruction: “I think that our time would be best focused right now on making sure the virtual program that we have in place is meeting the needs of our students.”

On a final note, Avula told board members to listen to teachers’ concerns and understand their personal situations when making a decision between virtual and in-person instruction.

“A teacher who is in that 60 plus category or has significant underlying conditions, I would really urge them to opt for virtual teaching. No matter how low the risk is, it’s not worth the gamble,” Avula said. “But, many of our employees are not in those high risk categories and might actually want to be back in person.”

RPS shared a survey last week with families and staff regarding a return to in-person classes. While only about 60% of staff have responded, of those staff members, 80% have told the district they would prefer to remain virtual. 

Kamras said only a small fraction of families, around 15%, have answered the survey -- too few to draw any conclusions. Still, a large majority of those who responded so far favor remaining fully virtual. 

The survey will remain available through December 6 for RPS employees, English-speaking families and Spanish-speaking families to fill out.