Charlottesville and Albemarle have canceled class Monday as state cases of the novel coronavirus climb and the city and county declared local emergencies.
The school divisions made the announcement Thursday morning as Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in the face of a widening pandemic. As of press time, the Virginia Department of Health has identified 17 positive cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
None of those cases currently is in Albemarle, Charlottesville or surrounding counties, but health officials have said they expect widespread illness throughout the U.S. and are taking extreme precautions in order to slow the spread and allow time for social services to react.
In Albemarle County and Charlottesville, teachers will be developing instructional materials for students who could be at home for an extended period of time, and division staff are planning how to deliver meals to students who participate in the free and reduced meals program.
“We are preparing — and we ask you to prepare — for the possibility of extended school closures following health department guidance,” Charlottesville superintendent Rosa Atkins said in a letter to parents. “ … As our community moves forward, we know that these changes are stressful, there will be challenges, and we will get through it together.”
High school programs at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center are canceled Monday as well, but adult education and apprenticeship programs will proceed, according to a social media post from CATEC.
Albemarle said in a note to families that it will assess whether to open schools Tuesday or remain closed. That decision is expected no later than Monday. The county School Board also called off its meeting Thursday night, pushing a slew of presentations to the April 16 meeting.
In Albemarle, students in sixth grade and higher have a school-issued laptop that they can take home, but access to the internet is not guaranteed throughout the county. In Charlottesville, students in third grade and up receive a laptop, but the devices only go home at Walker Upper Elementary, Buford Middle and Charlottesville High School.
The Greene County school division also announced Thursday that it is using a scheduled professional development day Monday to deep clean schools and for staff planning and canceling all extracurricular activities until April 12, though that does not include athletics. Many schools across Virginia and the country are taking similar steps amid widespread concerns about the coronavirus.
Schools in Richmond and Henrico County will be closed for at least two weeks, as well as public schools throughout the state of Maryland. Decisions to close local schools will be made in conjunction with local public health officials.
In addition to canceling for a day, school systems also are nixing field trips outside the area and school events with 100 people or more, and haven’t said how long the restrictions will be in place.
Earlier this week, Albemarle schools unveiled a three-phase plan as it seeks to plan and respond to the virus. On Wednesday, it moved to the second phase, which entails sending students and staff home who have the flu and instituting social distancing to limit physical contact among students.
State guidance says school should close for at least three days in the event that a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19, according to Albemarle County.
For Monday, Charlottesville’s after-school program CLASS will have a full-day program for students already enrolled in CLASS.
“As we take these steps, it is important to remember that children appear to be only mildly impacted by the coronavirus,” Atkins wrote. “The health department’s guidance to us is designed to mitigate the spread of the virus to keep our entire community safe, especially older adults and individuals with underlying health issues. These recommendations may change as we learn more from the health department and other authorities.”
Albemarle students enrolled in the school’s Extended Day Enrichment Program for holidays can attend the program, which will be offered Monday in the Greer Elementary School gymnasium from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Only students registered for the program are eligible to attend and should bring lunch and snacks with them.
At 5 p.m. Thursday, Charlottesville declared a local emergency, which activates a regional emergency operations plan to coordinate resources between the city, Albemarle and the University of Virginia; Albemarle’s County Executive Jeff Richardson declared a local emergency.
Board of Supervisors did not meet Thursday, but a spokeswoman said the board can ratify a local declaration after the fact, and that declaring an emergency helps the county stay aligned with state efforts.
City Council unanimously approved the declaration of a local emergency prior to a budget work session on Thursday.
Declaring a local emergency gives more authority to local governments to respond to such situations, including freeing up funding opportunities for regulating food and commodity distribution and prices.
The local declaration will last no longer than 45 days, at which point it can be extended.
Because the city is about to kickoff public hearings for the budget for fiscal 2021, which starts July 1, Mayor Nikuyah Walker urged communications staff to come up with a plan to maintain community engagement.
“If we have to limit the number of citizens who can participate, if they need to call in, email, Facebook live or whatever,” she said.
As of Thursday evening, officials said that Monday’s City Council meeting will still go forward as planned. It includes the first public hearings on the city’s proposed tax rate and budget for fiscal 2021. While some have floated the idea of electronic participation in the meeting, state code would prohibit such a measure. The law requires a quorum of councilors to be physically present, which would allow only two of them to participate remotely.
During the meeting, Councilor Lloyd Snook asked health department officials what would trigger an order or recommendation to lockdown city facilities, including schools.
“It’s all going to depend on the situation, to be honest,” said Ryan McKay, a senior policy analyst with the state health department.
Snook asked for some guidance on best practices for either preemptively canceling school and events or waiting because cases haven’t hit the city yet.
McKay said if a local case emerges, the agency would investigate and find out where the person went and who they interacted with. Officials would recommend a self-quarantine for those who interacted with the person and for businesses to close for deep cleanings.
“It’s a matter of where the person was during that incubation period,” he said.
Albemarle also is postponing indefinitely the Yancey School Community Center One-Year Celebration that was scheduled for Saturday and is evaluating other gatherings expected to exceed 100 attendees.
Kathryn Goodman, spokeswoman for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, said the health district has been working with the city and updating the City Council about how to prepare for the virus. The health district held a meeting with community organizations on Thursday to provide information on the virus and answer questions.
“I think at this point the biggest message is the public should prepare in general for any type of emergency,” she said.