WINCHESTER — Winchester Public Schools announced Friday that all students will switch to 100% online learning beginning Monday through Dec. 2 because of a spike in COVID-19 cases in the community and beyond.

Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum shared in a letter with division staff, students and families that the increase in positive cases has compromised the division's ability to effectively complete contact tracing — particularly in the last 24 hours.

WPS will reevaluate the local spread of the coronavirus throughout the Thanksgiving holiday with the hope of reopening classes on Thursday, Dec. 3. The decision to reopen will rely on the division's ability to continue contact tracing and implement quarantine procedures for students and staff who possibly have had contact with someone who has tested positive.

"That's a crack in the wall I'm not willing to have," he told The Star on the division's inability to do effective contact tracing.

In addition to contact tracing, the school division has been using such mitigation strategies as social distancing, face masks, hand washing and cleaning to keep students and staff as safe as possible.

"The mitigation strategies are important to keep our staff and students safe and without that confidence we cannot offer in-person instruction," Van Heukelum said.

In his letter, Van Heukelum cited health department statistics showing that the COVID-19 positivity rate in Winchester is 12.5% and the percentage change in cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days is 60%+. 

"This is an alarming increase in statistics in our community," he added in his letter.

Winchester also reached a spike in new COVID-19 cases in one day on Wednesday with 29 new cases, the most since the Virginia Department of Health began collecting data in March. Winchester has also seen a total of 847 positive cases of COVID-19 since March, according to the VDH.

In September, WPS opened classes for partial in-person learning, known as a hybrid model. Students had the choice of participating in the hybrid model and going to class in-person two days per week with online learning on the remaining days or they could complete all their classes 100% online. 

Starting this week, WPS expanded the numbers of days preschool through first grade students could go to class from two days to four days per week. 

The division also had to temporarily close two schools — Daniel Morgan Intermediate School and Frederick Douglass Elementary School — in October out of precaution for the coronavirus.

This division-wide switch to 100% online learning "should give us all pause," Van Heukelum said in his letter. He added that to continue safely operating schools the community must commit to social distancing and wearing face masks.

"'We are in this together' is not a slogan. These are words that should guide our daily decisions," he said. "Our ability to return to school in December is directly related to the choices we will all make over the Thanksgiving break. Please do your part."

Van Heukelum also ended his letter encouraging the community to "enjoy a quiet, blessed and SMALL Thanksgiving celebration" this year.

As of Thursday afternoon, WPS had eight active COVID-19 cases among staff and five active cases among students. In addition, 18 staff members and 47 students are self-quarantining after being in contact someone with a positive case of COVID-19.

"Schools have not been the source of transmission to students and staff, and schools remain a safe, controlled environment," Van Heukelum said.

— Contact Anna Merod at amerod@winchesterstar.com

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