School system survey finds consistently lower COVID rates in Southwest Virginia vs Northeast Tennessee

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Greeneville schools have highest rate of 10 systems, Bristol, Va. lowest

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Virginia’s statewide school mask mandate could be helping keep COVID-19 rates in Southwest Virginia schools lower than they are in nearby Northeast Tennessee schools, a News Channel 11 data study found.

The study found that at least among the 10 systems that responded, the six in Northeast Tennessee had COVID case rates more than twice as high as the four Southwest Virginia systems that responded.

Virginia has a statewide school mask mandate, while Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has ordered that any schools that do implement such mandates allow parents to opt their children out.

Sullivan County Regional Health Department Director Dr. Stephen May said while the difference is “correlation,” and certainly not provable “cause and effect,” he called the findings “not really surprising.”

“We do recognize that Virginia has had more stringent infection control measures than we have had in Tennessee,” May said. “Of course in Tennessee, we have the opt-out measure that can also create problems when you have a mask mandate.”

“It just correlates with infection control measures that we know work,” May added.

This chart shows adjusted rates of COVID cases as a percentage of total enrollment for 10 area school systems. Those in orange are in Northeast Tennessee while those in blue are in Southwest Virginia.

To get as close to an apples to apples comparison as possible, the study took the total of COVID-19 cases in a system as a percentage of total enrollment, then adjusted that up or down depending on how far off the norm of 25 instructional days that system was.

For example, Kingsport City Schools have had 716 cases out of an enrollment of 7,775 – 9.2%. But the system had 28 instructional days at the point of that total, so the 9.2% was divided by 1.12, lowering the final score to 8.2%.

By contrast, Scott County, Va., had just 19 days of instruction when it reported 158 cases in an enrollment of 3,350. So its 4.7% was divided by 0.76 — raising the final score to 6.2%.

Bristol Va. superintendent not afraid to use full mitigation arsenal

Bristol, Va. had the lowest final rate of just 2.1%. The system had just 29 cases through its first 16 instructional days among an enrollment of 2,125.

“The mitigations that we have in place are very strong,” Superintendent Keith Perrigan told News Channel 11. “We’ve got great cooperation from our students in following those mitigations.”

Perrigan said the system adjusts as community or school metrics change, loosening when possible and tightening back up when necessary.

“The main parts of our plan are screening, making sure that we’re wearing masks with fidelity, that families keep their children home when they’re sick, and that we’re really pushing the vaccine,” Perrigan said.

Bristol also deploys some carrots, including a $500 bonus for each employee who’s vaccinated — and in his system, that’s 75%, Perrigan said. And its vaccination percentage among 17 and 18-year-olds is the highest of any system in the Mount Rogers Health District.

He said the system has taken an aggressive approach from the beginning of the pandemic — and that the caution did not hamper student performance relative to other schools. On standardized testing (SOLs in Virginia), Bristol was “the fourth-highest climber in regards to rankings,” Perrigan said.

Accounting for socioeconomics, Bristol had the state’s seventh-best SOL performance, he said, adding that the system offered the second-most in-person learning hours in the state last year.

“Even though we do have some areas to work on, we were really very proud of the way our students performed on their SOL tests last year,” he said.

Mask mandates – of a sort – in Kingsport

Not far away from Bristol, the Kingsport City Schools had the third-highest overall rate at 8.2%, or nearly four times Bristol, Va.’s.

A News Channel 11 study found COVID rates in area school systems were more than double in Northeast Tennessee than they were in Southwest Virginia so far this school year.

Several weeks into the school year, Kingsport’s school board passed a mask requirement that included opt-outs not just for parents, but for staff and visitors.

“Because of the Governor’s executive order students did have an opportunity to opt-out of that,” True said. “And then also staff and visitors could opt-out as well.”

True said Kingsport is increasing the use of handwashing, disinfecting schools at an enhanced level and using other best practices “as we work for having as safe as possible environment when you have all of our students back in class.”

Administrators work with the health department on any necessary quarantines, and teachers are monitoring lists of opted-out students and trying to “facilitate a mask environment as much as possible obviously with those opt-outs, the students and staff have the opportunity to utilize.”

But True acknowledged the system has some externally imposed limits that don’t apply across the state line.

“In addition to the opt-outs that are there as approved by our school board and also at the state level by the governor through executive order, I think it’s a matter really in our schools of that is where we are,” True said.

“So what can we do with that situation to have a safe as possible environment? To operate in a way that hopefully, in a way, is creating those types of safe environments with what we have control over when it comes to that.”

True said the rapid growth in community cases recently began flattening, and that’s also been reflected in school numbers.

“It would be difficult, I think, to point to one specific mitigating measure just because we know it’s all of those things working together that can help decrease our case rates, but we’re cautiously optimistic,” True said.

Ramping up the restrictions in Bristol

Community spread rates have been soaring in Southwest Virginia, and Perrigan said the school system’s responded by tightening its mitigation efforts.

The additional mitigations began Tuesday and included “Tier 2 and Tier 3” mitigation practices.

Among them, Perrigan said, are temperature checks and screenings in car rider lines and temperature checks for bus riders when they arrive at school. Additionally, visitors will only be allowed by appointment with screening questions and temperature checks, staff will open windows as appropriate, overtime is approved for additional deep cleaning and rapid testing opportunities are being increased.

In an email to parents, Perrigan wrote of “school districts across Virginia temporarily move to virtual learning due to the impact of COVID-19 on their school community.”

He acknowledged the “minor inconveniences” of the measures but said “they will be much less inconvenient than moving to a virtual learning environment.”

A week after that email, with five additional days of instruction, Bristol had added 18 total COVID cases, bringing its adjusted case rate up from 2.1% to 2.6%. Southwest Virginia’s COVID community spread rate had increased by 20% during that week alone and was up almost 50% over the past two weeks.

Relief in sight for Northeast Tennessee?

Sullivan County’s May said cases and hospitalizations in Northeast Tennessee appear to be hitting a plateau after weeks of steep increases.

“I think a lot of that is directly due to implementing safety measures and people following them a little bit better,” he said. “It does work.

“The most important suggestion I can make is to get your vaccine, if you’ve not been vaccinated above the age of 12, get your vaccine. That is the number one best way out of this.”

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