‘We heard the parents. We heard the staff. And we heard everybody asking for transparency’
The Rappahannock County School Board on Tuesday reflected on the system’s return from summer break, which in the past was described by school officials as “tumultuous” with more than 30 students testing positive for the coronavirus in the first days back after masks were made optional and the highly infectious delta variant tore through the country.
The body heard from Robyn Murray, the Rappahannock County Elementary School nurse who heads the system’s internal COVID-19 response team and manages contact tracing. She revealed how her small team huddled into what they call the “situation room” to make phone calls and review security footage and data to trace infections within the schools as they uncovered the back-to-school outbreak that ultimately shuttered the system for a week.
Since the start of the school year, 373 total students have been quarantined, Murray said.
She also said that most students who have tested positive within the schools reported mild symptoms, with few popping a fever, once considered a telltale symptom of the original strain of the virus.
“The first three are the most common symptoms I’m seeing: scratchy — or sore — throat, congestion, headache, cough. I’m sure most of the people in this room have suffered from common allergies. Every person who has told me that it’s just allergies tests positive,” Murray said.
Across the country, there have been reports of surges in pediatric hospitalizations related to the virus. Piedmont District School Board Member Rachel Bynum, who was initially critical of the schools’ response to the virus’ risks, suggested that Rappahannock should consider itself lucky that no children within the schools to date have had poor outcomes from the virus.
Murray found that placing students into small groups, or “pods” as they’re called, has made contact tracing much easier in the weeks since they returned from the school’s weeklong closure that was spurred by the outbreak.
She also touted the schools’ use of a COVID-19 dashboard as an attempt to be forthright with parents about the state of the virus within the system. Prior to its implementation, some were concerned that the schools weren’t reporting all of the cases that had arisen.
“We heard the parents. We heard the staff. And we heard everybody asking for transparency,” Murray said of their efforts.
Bynum said she wished the dashboard displayed a broader picture of how case counts within the schools’ evolved over time, rather than just a real-time count of active cases and quarantines among students and staff.
“If we’re going to learn anything from what happened, it would be really helpful for the school to provide data over time. The piece of this dashboard that’s confusing [and] doesn’t feel very transparent, is that … all we’re seeing is a snapshot,” Bynum said.
Later into the meeting, Stonewall-Hawthorne District Member Larry Grove suggested that the schools, in reacting to the virus, should consider data outside of only Rappahannock County numbers.
He argued that thousands of residents work outside the county, while others commute into the area for work, and that not considering transmission data in surrounding counties when formulating policy within the schools could be a mistake. Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley said that the schools could consider that once the 30-day period following the most recent outbreak comes to a close.
In a marked shift from the previous two School Board meetings’ public comment sections, the vast majority who spoke were in favor of the schools taking pandemic precautions, such as masking.
Resident Tiffany Matthews touted a digital petition she started to urge school officials to follow the guidance of public health experts and disallow masking exemptions in school, which some parents alleged were distributed flippantly. Schools officials maintained that very few parents within the schools sought exemptions. The petition has garnered more than 200 signatures.
“We have now lived through multiple school days outbreaks while very few were masked at school. We want to do all we can to curtail hardship, missed school and serious illness or death from the pandemic in our community,” Matthews said, reading the document aloud.
In an apparent effort to discredit the petition, School Board Chair Wes Mills, of Jackson District, noted that many of its signers were from outside the county. His assertion seemingly frustrated Bynum.
“All I’m saying is, if you’re going to consider the data, let’s clean it up,” Mills told Matthews and Bynum.
A Rappahannock News review of the petition, provided by Matthews following the meeting, found that the majority of those who signed were listed as Rappahannock County residents, but many were listed with residencies outside the county.
In a Facebook message, Matthews said those who don’t have a Change.org account, where the petition is hosted, are listed with the zip code location where the web link was opened, creating inaccuracies within the generated list. Matthews, who lives in Chester Gap with her husband, has her residency incorrectly listed on the petition as Warrenton, according to the review.
Recently retired Rappahannock County High School Principal Jimmy Swindler spoke and praised the schools’ nimble response to the outbreak, as he described it. He requested that the body avoid revoking masking requirements prematurely. Masks are required in schools under a mandate from Gov. Ralph Northam.
Commonwealth Attorney Art Goff expressed frustration at the meeting with what he believed to be an unnecessary quarantine for his child, arguing that “due process” wasn't taken into account when they were asked to stay home from school. Some families, he said, can’t afford to take time off work to be home with their children who may not be sick, but are still required to quarantine.
He suggested he would be willing to volunteer his time to serve as a “neutral fact finder” to determine whether individual quarantines are warranted should a parent call the schools’ ruling on the matter into question.
In a more lighthearted and extraordinary moment, Chuck Jackson, editor of The MadRapp Recorder who was filming the meeting as a journalist, took to the podium for public comment, commending Grimsley’s handling of the pandemic and gifting to her a bobblehead of a cheerleader, which resembled the superintendent in appearance.
“I was talking to Shannon one day in her office and I said, ‘Do you feel like a yo-yo, going up and down?’ ... She said no. She said she felt more like a bobblehead. If you’re going to feel like a bobblehead, you should be a bobblehead,” he said before removing the trinket from a gift bag and presenting it to Grimsley, the School Board and the audience.