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Prince William County hopes return to virtual learning stops outbreak at elementary school

On Monday, Prince William County school leaders spoke to parents about their decision to keep children home from Bennett Elementary School.

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. — As Prince William County Public Schools (PWCPS) deals with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks, parents of students had the chance to hear from administrators on Monday about the decision to pause in-person learning at one of the impacted schools. 

Bennett Elementary School in Manassas became the latest school in the county to deal with an outbreak after 36 positive cases were confirmed last week, which later resulted in three probable positive cases and more than 200 close contacts in quarantine.

Officials said all known close contacts were identified and notified of possible exposure.

As a result of the outbreak, Bennett Elementary will return to virtual learning. The school district said classes will follow normal bell times.

During an information webinar for parents on Monday evening, the school district and health leaders said they believed the COVID-19 outbreak stemmed from both the community and the school. 

"You all may be aware that most of the state of Virginia is still in high community transmission," said Prince William County Health District Health Director Alison Ansher. "It’s not just transmission within the school.”

Ansher noted how "high community transmission" is defined by at least 100 new COVID cases identified over seven days.

According to the latest data from the Virginia Department of Health, Prince William County reported a 5.9% positive test rate and a rate of 166 new cases per 100,000 people.

Both numbers were higher than statistics reported in Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Arlington, and Alexandria.

As of Monday, PWCPS data showed 1,066 students in quarantine while 193 were isolating. The Prince William Health District noted that quarantine does not equate to illness.

Virginia Department of Health records showed that current or suspected outbreaks in progress were reported at Potomac High School, Sudley Elementary School, and Yorkshire Elementary School. 

During the webinar, Associate Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Denise Huebner referred to the decision to return to virtual learning as "proactive intervention" and said the change this week would help the district fully evaluate the safety of going back to the classroom. 

"We feel it will give us enough time for any developing cases to be recognized, identified, and to evaluate the health in the building," Huebner said. "The intention is always to return as swiftly as possible to in-person learning.”

District leaders also noted how the county was following strict cleaning procedures inside schools and closely monitoring students for personal protective masks.

Moving forward, they asked parents to get vaccinated to help lower the COVID transmission in the area.

"Our hope is that by having this pause, it’ll separate kids from one another and kids from the staff and allow us to cool down," Ansher said. 

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