As 2021 continues, and more vaccines are distributed, many residents of Westmoreland County keep their eyes on the School Board, wondering when a return to full, in-person learning will take place. The School Board decided to tentatively test the waters with hybrid learning once again back in February after moving back into virtual learning in November. As with other health updates involving the Coronavirus, Dr. Williams, the director of the Three Rivers Health District, was on hand, albeit via Zoom, to give some perspective.

According to Dr. Williams, several things have happened over the last few weeks. First, the case numbers have been plummeting.

Secondly, the CDC has published school re-opening guidelines, along with the VDH and VDOE. The CDC guidelines identify four levels of risk: low, moderate, substantial and high. The guidelines also tie school transmission risk to community transmission risk.

“The CDC makes it clear that the mitigation measures we’ve seen, such as distancing, mask usage, hand washing, contact tracing and quarantine should be kept intact at all times,” Dr. Williams stated. “That said, at low transmission levels, they say that physical distancing of six feet or more is desirable, and should be done as much as possible, though isn’t mandatory. In substantial to high risk, it’s mandatory.”

According to Dr. Williams, the VDOE and VDH looked at the guidelines, and took out the requirement, using language instead that posted six feet as standard distancing, but making it clear that substantial and high transmission risk areas should maintain 3-6 feet of distance.

“If you look at this from a risk-acceptance perspective, the VDH and VDOE have accepted a higher risk of transmission with less distancing required, but I’m sure it was done to balance out the effects of kids not being in school.”

Currently seven of the ten counties that comprise the Three Rivers health district are listed as “high transmission” while three others – specifically Northumberland, Matthews and Westmoreland County – are in the “substantial transmission” column.

“The risk has gone down from a community transmission perspective,” Dr. Williams continued, “and the VDH/VDOE language is more liberal with accepting compromised physical distancing at all levels. That means schools that want to get more kids back in, as long as you can do masking and other measures, while maintaining 3-6 feet, are still within VDH and VDOE policy.”

This policy decision is further aided by a body of evidence that shows 3 feet of distancing with a mask had just about the same effect on mitigation as six feet, which should allow for greatly-increased capacity, especially in schools, as studies have shown transmission risks are already much lower for children.

Vaccine supplies have also increased, with numerous places distributing the vaccines. During this week, the Three Rivers Health District’s nursing staff is looking to collaborate with EMS and establish a vaccine spot at the A.T. Johnson building.

“We’ve always wanted to do this, but haven’t had the supply to do so until now,” he continued. “We’re piloting the same program over in Essex County, and are looking to expand it to other counties as the vaccine supply increases. We’re not where we’d like to see it yet, but we have a lot more of it.”

A lot of vaccinations have taken place in the health district, but quite a lot of work remains. Concerns were also raised about other variants of the Coronavirus seeping into the health district. A strain from the UK and another from South Africa also snuck in.

“The variants are an unknown right now, but whether or not they transmit effectively, at three or six feet, the vaccines still work great against them,” said Dr. Williams. “They won’t guarantee prevention, but they are great at preventing serious cases as well as preventing spread to other people.”

By the time this piece is published, dozens of school employees will have had their second dose of the vaccine. At the moment, the division remains on hybrid learning.